“A clever person solves a problem. A wise person avoids it.”
— Albert Einstein

In the quote above, Einstein is not talking about shunning problems or running from them, but cutting them off before their consequences are felt. I believe the important point he makes here is that the wise are those who can recognize problems as problems even before their consequences become apparent.

In my previous issue I talked about the importance of taking time in leadership transitions to learn all you can about your organization and even making the effort to “unlearn” what you think you know about it. This helps you to find out what is working and what is not. As a leader, this process must not stop once the transition period is over.
The important thing is never stop questioning how and why you do what you do. That’s why I believe that today, true leaders should strive to be problem finders, rather than problem solvers.

The reason is simple: solving known problems takes roll-up-your-sleeves, detailed and focused work, which is something good leaders should be championing, encouraging and, and perhaps most importantly, delegating. Finding problems and dragging them out into the light, on the other hand, takes strategic vision and courage, and that’s exactly what people are looking for in their leaders.

The Cost of Hidden Problems

When you think of quality and automobiles, the name “Toyota” is one of those that come to mind. The company’s name is synonymous with the term, “quality.” That’s because throughout Toyota, thousands of managers and process engineers are constantly working with proven processes and systems to engineer quality into the front end instead of having those problems showing up on the roads.

However, after being plagued recently by eight major recalls in one year, and with its reputation for quality threatened, Toyota leadership announced in late August that it may delay the release of several new 2007 models until quality can once again be assured.

The move could cost the company millions and open new opportunities for its competitors. Toyota wasn’t doing anything different, or was it? How did this happen?

Analysts say Toyota’s very success and growth had a big part in the problem. People with critical knowledge were spread more thinly among the design centers because of this heightened production, and increased part-sharing among different models amplified the magnitude of a single part failure. Toyota leadership also has been faulted for inadequately predicting market trends, the latest example being its decision to produce a heavier, more powerful, thirstier Tundra model in record numbers just when sales of this type of vehicle are plummeting.

At Toyota, leaders were quickly finding solutions to the problems of growth, such as increasing part-sharing. It seems nobody was asking, “What happens if there is a defect in this part and it fails across all of these models?” If somebody was asking that question, it seems nobody was listening.

Problem Finding vs. Problem Solving

Problem solving is highly rewarded and celebrated, and I’m not arguing that it shouldn’t be. Recognition often goes to mid-level managers who do a great job of reaching budget targets, or to those who ensure the organization and its people attain compliance with internal rules and external regulatory requirements. So, to be blunt about it, in many organizations people are glorified and rewarded as great leaders for meeting relatively easy objectives. It is usually others who aim higher by saying, “we could do a lot better ” or “we don’t know half as much as we think we do about this” who go unrecognized.

Problems that are hidden or ignored, or those that are festering and might be months or years away from being considered problems, cannot be solved. Unfortunately, people are generally not rewarded for recognizing these problems and bringing them to light. In fact, they are often seen as “rocking the boat” or worrying needlessly about something that isn’t currently affecting anyone. And the farther down the chain of command these people are, the harder it is for them to be heard. It is a recipe for mediocrity in an organization.

That’s why you as a leader need to be a problem finder, and create a culture in which uncovering potential problems is valued as much as solving problems that are known. Others should be motivated to find the solutions.

Processes of Problem Finding

Problem finding from scratch is not easy, but there are several disciplines you can employ to help get at them. It begins with shaping the problem by revising a question.

One method used in Six Sigma Methodology for finding problems is known as “The Five Whys” or sometimes “The Five Whys and One How.” Although the number of whys is not really important, five is a good rule. The overall goal is to keep revising a question to get at root causes for a problem.

The following are a few steps in using The Five Whys:

  1. Write down the specific problem to help you formalize the problem and describe it completely. It also helps the team focus on the problem.
  2. Ask why the problem happens and write the answer down below the problem.
  3. If the answer you just provided doesn’t identify the root cause of the problem that you wrote down in step 1, ask why again and write that answer down.
  4. Loop back to step 3 until the team is in agreement that the problem’s root cause is identified. Again, this may take fewer or more times than five whys.

Here is an example: The problem is this: You hear that volumes of walk-ins are increasing in another emergency department in your system, while at the same time yours are beginning to fall. The consequences of this problem could eventually be financially damaging for your hospital.

“Walk-ins are increasing in the other emergency department in our system, while at the same time ours are beginning to fall” is a simple statement of a problem. The goal is to find its root cause. This begins with asking the first why.

Why are our volumes of walk-ins falling while theirs are increasing? One answer: because their patient satisfaction scores are higher.
Don’t stop there. Ask the second why.

Why are their patient satisfaction scores higher? One answer from their patient surveys and reports in the media is this: because it takes patients only 20 minutes from the time they enter the ED until the time they are seen by a physician. In your organization it takes 45 minutes.

That is the root cause of why your volumes are falling while theirs are rising, but you still haven’t gotten to the root of why there is such a discrepancy, so you ask another why.

Why does it take 45 minutes instead of 20 minutes in our organization from the time a patient comes to the door until he or she is seen by a physician? One answer: Because we don’t have enough physicians on staff.

But that is the wrong answer in this case, because the fact is that the other emergency department has the same staffing levels, but is now handling more volume than yours. Here is where going down the “how” road might come in:

How do they ensure a physician sees the patient in half the time? Or better yet, how can we do it?

At this point you can go back to the whys again and ask that same question about the 45 minutes to try to get closer, or you might move on to another approach since you are closer to getting at the root of the problem, and it is very likely that there will be more than one root cause to this problem.

Creative problem-solving experts Sidney J. Parnes and Alex F. Osborn developed the Osborn/Parnes Creative Problem Solving Process, in which a key part is problem finding. Part of their problem-finding approach includes data-finding, in which you ask a series of questions about the problem.

First, turn your problem into a positive statement: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could ensure that every patient in the ED was seen by a physician within 20 minutes of entering?” Then ask a series of questions about the problem, which might include:

  • Why is this important?
  • Why can’t this be ignored?
  • What keeps us from getting to this?
  • What will we lose if we don’t do anything?
  • Where, when and how does this thing occur?
  • Who could help with this?
  • Who stands to gain/lose when this is solved?
  • When does this not seem to be a problem?
  • What resources do we have?
  • What information would we like to have?
  • What sources of information are available?
  • How did this come about?
  • How does this situation affect us and the emergency department?

Once you have answered these questions, you will not have solved the problem, but you will have accomplished much. First, you have narrowed down the problem, you have built a great case for the importance to your organization of solving it, and you have tentatively identified who can help you and how they can help you, and you have made a solid foundation for buy-in.

Now it’s time for action. You have identified who the stakeholders are and who can help you with this problem (rather than who is “causing it”), so these will be the people in the room when you announce: “We have a problem. We need to get patient time from door to physician treatment below 20 minutes and this is why it is important that we solve it as soon as possible…”

Again, as I wrote in my previous articles, you are not coming in with the answer, because, frankly, you don’t know what the answer is, and you don’t want to make the mistake of jumping to your own conclusions about how to easily solve it. As the late newspaperman and commentator H.L. Mencken once said, “There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible and wrong.”

Your job is to find the problem and define the degree of the opportunity for everyone in solving it. From then on, you delegate responsibility for solving it and continually monitor progress.
Where do you go from there? That’s simple—you go back to your strategic responsibility of identifying new opportunities for the organization, and that means finding problems.




Timely Example of the Importance of Finding Problems

After I wrote this article and sent it to the designer, I saw this news item from the Associated Press that shows how important it can be to find hidden problems with the way your organization operates.

WAUKEGAN, Ill. — A coroner’s jury has declared the death of a heart attack victim who spent almost two hours in a hospital waiting room to be a homicide.

Beatrice Vance, 49, died of a heart attack, but the jury at a coroner’s inquest ruled Thursday that her death also was “a result of gross deviations from the standard of care that a reasonable person would have exercised in this situation.” A spokeswoman for Vista Medical Center in Waukegan, where Vance died July 29, declined to comment on the ruling.

Vance had waited almost two hours for a doctor to see her after complaining of classic heart attack symptoms, Deputy Coroner Robert Barrett testified.

She was seen by a triage nurse about 15 minutes after she arrived, and the nurse classified her condition as “semi-emergent,” Barrett said.

When her name was finally called, a nurse found Vance slumped unconscious in a waiting room chair without a pulse.