Finding a Problem and Fixing a Problem Aren’t the Same Thing

by Sharlyn Lauby on March 13, 2013

I think we’d all agree that problem solving is an essential skill. Problem solving isn’t as simple as “find a problem; fix a problem”.

problem, problem solving, employee, workplace, manager, skill, practical problem solving

First, we have to make sure that we’re dealing with the “real” problem and not just a symptom. For example, one day you’re walking by an employee’s cubicle and notice the employee is checking Facebook on their phone. Our initial reaction might be to expeditiously draft a memo to staff telling all employees to stop checking their phones during working hours.

Then you say to yourself – problem solved.

The next day, you walk by that particular employee’s desk again and you notice they are reading a magazine. On one hand, you realize it’s not Facebook and it’s not the employee’s phone but that’s just semantics. And you realize you might become a laughing stock if you ban reading at work. You decide to ask the employee why they’re reading a magazine.

And the employee says, “I’m waiting for this report to process on my computer. It takes a long time and the program will crash if I try to use any other programs at the same time.”

So you did find a problem – the employee is faced with downtime and can’t work. But the fix to the problem wasn’t banning Facebook, or employee phone use or reading magazines…it’s talking with IT about ways to speed up report processing. Or possibly coaching the employee on a different time management strategy.

When we see something that doesn’t look right for the business, we need to label it as a problem. But that’s only to get it on our radar. Then we need to ask some questions to make sure we’re looking at a “real” problem and not a symptom. We can start by asking the classic Who? What? Where? And When? We can also make sure we know:

How widespread is the problem?

How does the problem play out over time?

Identifying a true problem will help us to find practical and realistic solutions. That way, whatever we fix really needed fixing in the first place.

Image courtesy of HR Bartender

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