Stop Solving Problems
Tom Stimson
April 22, 2015

The average business owner can look around herself and witness a sea of problems. Products out of place, numbers in the wrong account, proposals with misspellings, safety compromises, or trash in the parking lot – each and every one of these is a clear and obvious failure on someone’s part to do their job, she thinks.

So, instead of growing her business, refining strategy, cultivating new accounts, and managing finances, she gets up from her desk to find out who did this thing and why. Accountability is her watchword, but even after years and years of chasing problems down, showing one individual or a team the error of their ways, and tasking a manager to ‘stay on top of this’ – the problems persist.

I have an important message for these owners and managers: Just. Stop.

Start Removing Obstacles.

Stop solving problems because it is a waste of time. Problems have already happened. You can’t fix them. You can address the issues created by the malfeasance, but you can’t take them back.

A better alternative to focusing on problems, their sources, and the repercussions is to fix your process.

The process of restocking and maintaining shelves is designed to keep products properly merchandised and in their right place. I think we can all agree that this is a good thing. However, an employee that places a widget on the wrong aisle has made a mistake.

Mistakes are not problems, they are actions or judgments that are misguided or incorrect. A problem is repeatedly making the same mistake. The solution is better process.

“What about accountability? We have to know who did what so we know how to retrain them,” said the well-intentioned leader. Again, stop.

In defense of the average business owner, there are a lot of mistakes going on all around you. It may seem like a sea problems to you, but to me all I see are broken or non-existent processes.

Make a list of all the problems that you are currently thinking of – or maybe the first five or so that come to mind – we don’t have all day. Many of these items represent individualized actions – someone did something incorrectly.

Your first tendency may be to fault the person, their laziness, their bad intentions. That person may need to be fired, but then you notice that the list includes errors that your good employees make. You can’t fire them all – even if you want to some days.

Read the first item again. What is the process that is supposed to prevent the problem in the first place?

(Hint: if you are thinking that you just need to do everything yourself, I can guarantee that YOU are the problem.)

If products are put in the wrong place, what is the obstacle to putting them in the right place? Is there re-stocking process defined? Are the shelves labeled? Who monitors shelves to make sure things are in place? How often do you retrain? How do you change the process when needed?

Every Good Process Needs:

  • A Process Owner: A person who implements and monitors the procedure and is accountable for compliance. They are also the person who can make a change. It must be a person that is directly involved in the procedure.
  • Checks and Balances: A good process is designed such that more then one person has to make a mistake in order for an error to manifest to the point of being a…problem.
  • Process for Process Change: Good processes are easier to change because there is a procedure for implementing refinements. Process change generally has three to five steps. Define them.

Now that we have established a baseline for a strong process, what is the obstacle to creating and maintaining one? Let me guess: time? money?

You are thinking, “If I have the warehouse manager spend time monitoring shelves and retraining employees, they won’t have time to do something else. Now I have to hire more help?”

Probably. Welcome to management.

You may need to add resources in order to assure the outcome you have prescribed. The obstacle to the process may be that the warehouse manager has too many responsibilities, many of which could be addressed by having better processes.

Ironic, isn’t it?

If it is any consolation, most small businesses can improve profitability by adding employees, provided the firm’s processes are smart, efficient, and reduce mistakes.

It’s cheaper than the cost of the disruption you create every time you run into the warehouse because something was restocked incorrectly. Fix your processes.

The takeaway from all this is that owners and managers need to take a moment to understand how your processes allow mistakes to occur then focus on fixing your process. If you follow the three point guideline, you will find that once a process has been established it is self-correcting, which means that with each new implementation, the organization moves permanently forward.

Wouldn’t that be better?

About Tom Stimson
Tom Stimson MBA, CTS is an authority on business and strategy for small- to medium-sized companies. He is an expert on project-based selling and a thought leader for innovative business processes.
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