Mind the gap! Or can’t you be bothered?

20150921-Mind-The-Gap

I like to run, and I am fanatic enough to keep track of my distance, pace and heart rate, on every run. It is like a numbersgame, a competition with myself. But there is this gap between me and breaking my personal best, running the 10k within an hour. How come I am not improving? Probably (well certainly) the lack of proper training, coaching and a schedule are what is missing. So to improve – I need to invest and set some priorities.

What about organisations? How do they get better? Do they invest enough to break records and crossing lines for the greater good? Like reached the lowest level of scrap, reduced the number of recurring problems, achieved an amazing uptime due to a minimum number of interruptions, or an all- time low use of unnecessary spare parts? Recently a client said to me: I have managed all the bottlenecks in the system, now I need to go to the next level. And…there is this gap, in problem solving:

Closing the gap in problem solving would have a moderate to extremely high impact on quality.

Wow! This is the outcome of a study conducted by Deloitte and the Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG). It was looking into the future with OEMs and suppliers in the automotive industry. The report, called Quality 2020 showed a shocking result:

Problem-solving capabilities are inadequate, and the main reason is because we are jumping to solutions

How come an industry with many years of experience, that is normally ahead of the game, is still lacking these key capabilities?

Problem solving is important because it impacts the organization’s ability to manage, monitor, and respond to quality-related events; the ability to implement operational efficiencies as well as brand and customer relations.

It is recognized as a key differentiator, so why not invest in that key capability? Problem solving is not like fixing the same problems over and over again. That is just fire fighting. You think you can manage uptime and reliabiilty with that? When root cause is still lacking and people rush from calamity to catastrophe, from disaster to crisis, I am afraid you have some homework to do.

Like running. If I want to improve, I need to get serious. Get training, make it systematic, get a coach and a training schedule. Unfortunately, a one-size-fits-all approach will not give the biggest improvement. I should get a “current state” test as well, to make sure the training suits best with my current condition and situation.

Likewise with problem solving. Although a lot of people think when more experienced one will be better at problem solving. Well, just a bit, but you will not be able to make the big jump to break your personal best. There is a jump needed to bridge the gap between solving simple and tough problems. And when becoming confident in solving them, you feel empowered to go beyond and become even more proactive in your approach.

But first things first, and step by step. Think about your priorities. Do you want to improve, do you want to breakthrough the magic barriers? Then it is time to invest.

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I don’t know – do you?

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Dont-know

One of the most frustrating aspects of problem solving is not knowing what the problem is. How can I fix this horrible, unwanted situation! This black box is staring at you and people would say “I don’t know what the problem is”. Of course not, as you’ve just started the investigation!

How should you know?

  1. Your colleague How often does it happen that in hindsight a colleague did know how to solve the issue? How come you didn’t know about it? Was it not documented in the system? Was it only captured on his internal hard drive? And why didn’t he tell you when you explained to him what was going on?
  1. The system The system comes up with a “perfect match”, or you thought you found the perfect match. The result provided had the most similarities to the situation you entered. In reality the perfect match was not so perfect after all and the solution provided took you totally off piste and made the situation even worse. The question arises – how well was your description of the problem and how precise was the documentation captured in the system?
  1. You Although you said you didn’t know, how come you should actually know?

If you don’t know, start to understand first.

Problem solving doesn’t start with knowing what the problem is. It actually starts with understanding. Good problem solvers are conscious about the difference between solving and understanding.. “Seek to understand before seeking to solve” is a principle derived from one of the 7 habits of effective people of Steven Covey and is one of the core concepts of KCS (defined by Consortium for Service Innovation, enabling knowledge management) .

Kepner-Tregoe defined this principle already in their studies in the 1950s. They designed the Situation Appraisal process for it. Getting a good understanding of an issue means you need to:

  • Collect the facts – to make sure the starting point is right. The questions “What is exactly going on? What evidence do you have? What should be happening vs what is actually happening?” are giving you a powerful insight in the situation.
  • Ask open questions – to make sure to you get all the issues from the customer’s perspective. Closed questions are dependent on what you know, …and that was exactly the issue, you don’t! Closed questions are often based on assumptions and can very easily lead to the rabithole.
  • Ask for clarification – rather than concluding on your own, ask “What do you mean by?” and you will be surprised by the answer. As what is being said is often not what is being meant. And evenso, what did you get out of it?
  • Separate issues – rather than lump things together. By structuring and organizing issues in separate buckets, they become easier to tackle and to prioritize. Because how sure are you that all these issues can be cured by the same medicine? If you think making it yourself easy by summarizing the separated issues in general terms, you are wrong. It is actually making it yourself extremely difficult to fix the issue. One size doesn’t fit all. Move away from container language and be as specific as possible, by splitting up different symptoms and facts.
  • Listen objectively – with an open mind and both ears, leaving your “map of the world” at rest. We often listen to interrupt or are already busy in preparing the response. Listening with full attention isn’t that easy, but give it your best.

But will I get to know my problem?

By embracing “seek to understand before seek to solve” principle, or in KT terms by doing your Situation Appraisal right, you will notice that:

  • The dialogue with your customer gets fluent
  • Your customer is willing to offer more information because of your quality questions and structured approach
  • You understand more about the situation, enabling you to ask for more specific help of your colleagues
  • The search in the knowledge system becomes more specific and hits become more reliable
  • The system, where all knowledge resides, becomes more meaningful as all people put in more precise information
  • You will solve this issue!
  • (And ..your customer satisfaction scores go up)

Problem solving starts with not knowing what the cause is. And it should be your aim to get a better understanding of what the problem exactly is, so you can solve it permanently.


An example from reality

Recently I coached an equipment engineer on a problem that was open for half a year. He had put down the problem description: I can’t operate the machine from the user interface and the read outs are too low. Two issues mentioned in one sentence, triggered by the word “and”.

Let’s separate them first, as how do you know that it is caused by the same cause? He didn’t know.

Understanding reality means to ask a question: “So how you know the read out is too low? What do you see? What is actually happening?”  

“Uhm, well it has been a while, but I think…” and the engineer made up a story.

Later on he asked permission to go to the cleanroom. “Why do you want to go there” ,I asked, as I was afraid he would go and change something. “To get a better understanding of the problem”. 20 minutes later he came back with screenshots and all actual measurements of the screens and interfaces. Now he could start to understand the issue, before jumping to the solution of it. And he discovered he had more than 2 issues at hand.

It felt like going back and not moving forward. The starting point now is much better.

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Problem Solving – difficult puzzle or kids play?

After a busy year-end, the winter break allowed me a few days at home for a little relaxation and self-indulgence and, as is the tradition in my house, the completion of a 1000 piece puzzle. It is an extremely relaxing activity for body and mind as eyes search and hands reach out for lumpy-edged pieces and the mind wanders and drifts but slowly the picture starts to appear and I reflect upon the parallels between this holiday hobby and the troubleshooting techniques of my working life :

Starting with the boundaries

EdgeUnpacking the box, eager eyes are not distracted by the colours and shapes of the broken image. First task is to seek out the limits and find all the pieces with the straight edges to “scope” the puzzle and set the boundaries. In problem solving this phase is executed with the start of a problem statement: what is the object and its deviation? Then we search for data and organize it in order to construct a clear picture from the outside in.

Constructing the elements to make building blocks

Building blocksWith the limits set, it is always a challenge for where to begin. Expert puzzlers will aim to build around the distinctive features and obvious, almost easy to fit, puzzle pieces. In troubleshooting issues, some facts are easy to find and are immediately brought to the table while others require more perseverance and keen observation; which means that the right conditions help, such as good illumination and enough room to layout the pieces and ensure no evidence is hidden.

In the beginning, there seems an overwhelming amount of these interdependent elements, you almost don’t know where to look to find the pieces that fit. Some can be overlooked through obsessive searching for that specific piece that fixates for the moment, while other times we can stumble across a key item that was not the objective of our search.

So true too in our troubleshooting since we often become fixated upon a possible root cause and seek out the evidence at the risk of missing other key data. Important then to keep an open mind and maintain a rigorous process that builds islands of what we know to be true to bring the big picture into focus; we soon have more solid evidence than spaces in between and there is a final rush of activity to fill in the gaps with what is left.

It is all about close observation and logic

logicWhen the easy bits are done, the most difficult stage starts: the look alike parts. The key capability here in making progress is the ability to observe very closely . A friend was really good at this – staring at the pieces, comparing each carefully against the other, and then all of a sudden taking one piece and just fitting it in the right spot! It is the unique characteristics of the piece that needs to fit the confirmed surroundings that helps you further. “ What is special odd unique or distinct” is the key question to ask. The trial and error approach took definitely much longer and was actually distracting the others around the table.

The problems we face are the ones where  there is a lot at stake. And even then, we come across the trial and error attempts to solve the problem. When actually starting to look closely at the facts, using a logic approach, the group immediately recognizes their attempts were a waste of time. And the question “if this fix is the cause, why it is happening in this range of products and not in that other range of products”? is a simple one, but saving you big time. Unfortunately, a lot of effort, money and parts are already spent, without having a clear path to permanent solution. Taking a step back and focussing on the unique characteristics and the related changes is often the course of action that allows you to make progress. Like in a puzzle, there is only one solution possible.

Problem Solving – is it just a kids play?

Standing back, looking at the completed picture it all seems so right, so obvious.

Is problem solving as easy as finishing a jigsaw puzzle? Of course not! But even so, the frustration levels can be the same, as well the feeling of contentment at another puzzle resolved.

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Look before you leap

Get the big picture before jumping into actionStepping back and taking in the big picture allows you to see where efforts need to be focussed

One of the things I love about using the Kepner-Tregoe methodology is the clarity it gives me. By stepping away from the immediate actions and looking at a situation from a holistic point of view service outcomes improve greatly. Having the ability to quickly review the issue you are looking at from different perspectives will show that there is nearly always more to a situation than just one particular problem. In doing so, we are becoming more pro-active which results in an improved customer confidence.

There are two situations that we need to consider here, in this post I want to look at the way we deal with the type of issues that cause real disruption and annoyance to your customers, but are perhaps not considered to be critical business events. They are in your back log and need fixing, as they are the “lurking crocodiles” in your system.

One of the good things about the type of people that work in IT is that they like to fix things, one of the bad things is that they like to try to fix things before they really understand the true nature of the problem.

Get in a Scrum to regroup and focus – manage that backlog!

When issues are ongoing and a known resolution is not immediately obvious, then planning little “scrum-root-cause-analysis” meetings might be the way forward. Taking the time to pull your team together and focus on the issue at hand is not only advisable, it is one of the most productive actions you can take in this situation.

Often, simply talking through the issue, clearly defining the error and making sure you are ocussing on the source of the incident will give the clarity that is needed to direct efforts in the right direction. It is important to do this before changes are made to try and resolve the current situation, these changes may well serve to muddy the waters and ultimately make finding the root cause of the incident much more difficult.

Far from being a waste of precious time, the time taken to focus in on the real problem can greatly reduce the time it will take to repair the fault and get the business back to work.

The right people, the right information, the right direction

While this is a simple concept, there are some caveats I need to mention.

This way of working will not help if you do not have the right people in the room, or if you do not have accurate, factual information about what has happened, when it happened, who it happened to and where it happened.

You need to gather your subject matter experts (SMEs) and they need to have done their homework and come to the meeting with as much information as they can gather. They need to understand the importance to taking this time out, as well the managers circulating them and pushing them for action.

The other caveat to be aware of is the need to get stuck into content discussions with your team of experts. A strong leader is needed to “drag them out” of the techie details and provide them with guidance to create the bigger picture, identify information gaps and give direction to the next steps. Their expertise and knowledge has to be directed so it lands in the right time and in the right place. This will allow you to focus the efforts of the team in the right area, giving the best opportunity for a swift and successful resolution.

Changing mindsets

This can be a difficult thing for the action-focussed IT technician to accept. There is a mindset that makes stopping to talk about an issue seem like a mistake, busily trying every option they can think of to get things working again is what they are used to doing…and it makes them feel useful. Collaboration and process could actually inspire them to get new ideas.

This is the mindset that needs to be changed in order for effective and successful problem solving to become a part of your culture. I imagine that, if you are reading this post, you are ready to scrum and want to put KT into practise to solve your problems. The key to harnessing the effectiveness of this way of working is to embed it into the culture of the organization – make it “just the way we do things around here”.

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What is the shelf life of our skills?

Which skills are the ones that organizations need the most and are they sustainable?

Do those types of skills actually exist and how accurately can we ever predict which skills are needed in the future? Kepner and Tregoe, who founded KT in 1958, believed that critical thinking skills are what matter the most, regardless of the organization and prevailing conditions. After 57 years, I am wondering is this still a valid statement?

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