In my previous life I was an engineer for a leading premium car manufacturer. As a project manager I was responsible for building and testing engines before they went into production and onto the market. Clearly, what matters here is time and quality and, in striving to achieve them, I did typical (traditional) things – deriving project plans, holding status meetings, writing reports and agreeing milestones.

Despite best efforts, performance traffic lights were continuously amber or red. We threw more resources at the problem like implementing new IT or introducing new specialist roles.There was an armada of people supporting the process, keeping engineers occupied with form-filling and attending workshops. In the end, I’m not sure who was actually supporting who. Without any evidential data about what really worked, it felt like the focus of the whole organisation was consumed by such activity, rather than actually designing a cylinder head or testing an engine on a test bench (…which probably would have speeded up the process).

The problem with problem solving

From a traditional management perspective, I was doing a pretty good job. Now, from my new perspective, I can see that my thinking – which I believe was unintentionally designed throughout the whole company – was what I call a “sticking plaster” mentality. On reflection, I was tampering and using sticking plasters to achieve fixes, when I probably should have been calling an ambulance. We were good at fixing problems but not at solving the right ones.

Some say it is important to understand the root causes of problems, which sounds plausible enough. A variety of tools have been developed to help with this, such as the ‘5 Whys’, ‘Fishbone Diagrams’ and ‘A3-Problem Solving’. However, the reality is they have unintended consequences of their own: Give people a tool or a form to fill in and that becomes the focus of their attention. It’s suddenly all about the tool, rather than the problem; all about the process, rather than the thinking and, in particular, the most challenging question ‘Are we solving the right problem?’

Challenging conventional norms and thinking

The only thing that really needs fixing is management thinking. If we do not challenge and change the way we think about problem solving, we end up with broadly the same actions and outcomes every time. Argyris describes this phenomenon as single loop versus double loop learning.[1] If organisations do not challenge their fundamental norms and assumptions, they end up tampering or sticking temporary plasters on problems. At best, they end up doing the wrong thing righter, possibly faster and at worst, wronger (single loop learning), instead of doing the right thing (double loop learning).

History is punctuated with great double loop achievements: the fight against cholera in the 19th century is one of them. In London in 1854, doctors believed that cholera was an airborne disease. Therefore, their action strategies included keeping windows shut, using face masks and so on. Did it help? Certainly not. Nowadays, everyone knows that cholera is a waterborne disease but in 1854, society’s single loop assumptions and solutions led to the death of 14,000 people.

That was until a doctor by the name of John Snow, challenged this thinking by plotting all the cases of cholera on a map and talking to residents. He quickly learned that those infected had all been using the same public water pump in Broad Street. After disabling the pump by removing its handle, the epidemic soon retreated. John had challenged conventional assumptions by getting knowledge, by analysing the problem on the ground and talking to the people involved.

Relating this back to the context of the business world equates to managers spending time with production and service teams, talking with frontline staff and listening to what customers are saying. It may not be as attractive as flying around the globe, holding strategy meetings or scrutinising performance reports but it is more effective.

Interestingly, Snow first began questioning the ‘airborne’ assumption 5 years earlier in 1849 but it took all that time, and a tragedy, to enable society to change its thinking. Would the 5 Whys or a Fishbone have helped? Would they have challenged conventional beliefs and norms? Or would they have led to the deployment of more and better masks?

In business, I see single-loop, sticking plaster thinking all over the place:

In order to properly understand the problems in individual organisations, managers need to study their systems end-to-end from the customers’ perspective. Take the example of the CRM-System [2]. When call centre managers study their systems, they typically find that much of their demand (40 to 80 percent of it) is actually failure demand [3] – demand that is caused by a failure of the system to do something or do something right for a customer. Conventional management logic is: when customers call us again, the advisor (usually a different person to the original advisor) does not know what was agreed in the first call, therefore we need a CRM-System to capture detailed instructions and information.

However, if the majority of these calls represent failure demand, what value is there in devising elaborate ways of storing them at vast expense (a single loop solution)? CRM-Systems are big business and big bucks: purchasing the IT, setting up project management teams to track progress, training staff to use them (often reluctantly). All these amounts to solving the wrong problem. A better problem to solve is to understand and remove the conditions in the system that prevent advisors from responding to value demands at the first point of contact.

Effective problem solving needs an inquiring mind, not a tool: getting knowledge by studying the system end-to-end from the customers’ point of view. Ultimately, challenging our assumptions about the problems we think we have, and their solutions, is more effective and less painful than ripping off the plaster.

Best of luck solving better problems…

By Hendrik Ascheberg

Further relevant resources:

BETTER DIGITAL FROM BETTER METHOD: upcoming event, London 16th of May 2018

If you are engaged in creating digital solutions into service organisation, this event will help you to step back and think of the problem you are trying to solve, before you spend further millions on IT and Digital:

Learn more

BEYOND COMMAND AND CONTROL NETWORK: The new network group across UK, Europe, OZ and South Africa

If you want to meet like minded people who are challenging command and control thinking in organisation, please get in touch and sign-up for free. I am responsible for the London and South-East area within UK as well as Germany. So if you are interested and live close, please get in touch with myself.

Learn more

Is NPS the right measure to improve customer service?

One of my new articles; learn more about failure demand as a measure to increase customer service and NPS

Learn more

The Vanguard Method in Financial Services:

Learn more about achievement of organisations who went beyond command and control by using the Vanguard Method:

Learn more

[1] Chris Argyris, Double Loop Learning in organizations, Harvard Business Review No. 77502, 1977

[2] CRM-System: Customer Relation Management system. Usually an IT-System, that documents customer related information.

[3] Vgl. John Seddon, Freedom from Command and Control