Identifying the Real Problem

Data Analysis For Business And Finance Concept.

As a leader, part of your responsibility is to monitor whether your organization is on track to meet its identified goals and if not, to take steps make sure barriers are addressed. Unfortunately, far too often we misdiagnose our people as the problem because they are the most visible variable. We tell them to try harder, we remind them of the target metrics, and expect them to figure it out. Except, more often than not, our people aren’t the problem. Our systems are.

According to quality guru W. Edwards Deming, 94% of our problems in organizations are systems problems not people problems. Read that sentence again. If you want to be an effective leader, you have to pay attention to your systems.

Systems have a way of fading into the background and functioning unnoticed, so it is easy to overlook their influence on a situation. What exactly do I mean by systems? It is not the individual policies, procedures or functions within your organization, although these play a role. Systems are the formal and informal inter-relationships that influence behavior over time. Think of it like a mobile. When you touch one part of the mobile, it impacts every other part. It is not about the parts per se — an individual part may seem to be working just fine — the key is how those parts interact.

Tell tale signs that you are dealing with a “systems issue” include:

  • You have chronic, seemingly unexplainable behaviors or problems that multiple people have tried to address and yet to date have been “unsolvable”.
  • When people who work in the same function, regardless of how different they may be, tend to produce similar results, it’s likely a systems issue more than a people issue.
  • If you take steps to “fix” an issue in one part of the organization, and suddenly you begin to have new problems in another part of the organization, you have bumped up against a system.

Systems are rarely linear cause and effect chains (which would be much easier to see!). With systems, cause and effect are often separated by time and space, and the best way to address an issue may be three steps back from the “problem”.  To test this, when someone is describing a problem, respond by asking “why” as many as 5 times — the root issue is probably somewhere close to the fifth question.

Systems aren’t bad in and of themselves as long as you recognize that they are designed to maintain the status quo — which is a good thing in some situations. It is also important to recognize that using a “bigger hammer” is rarely effective in changing a system . . . and really ineffective in changing the behavior of staff who are functioning within the system.

Have a situation that seems resistant to all of your efforts to solve it? Maybe you need to start by making sure you have identified the real problem.



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