Most companies, and most leaders, have developed a bias toward tackling
what we might call “rocks”: large, top-down interventions such as
reorganizations, IT investments, or mergers. For most organizations, the
hierarchy, performance metrics, and interaction rhythms all center on
managing rocks, which usually translate to projects—each with a manager,
a set of objectives, and milestones.
But business isn’t all about rocks. There is also “sand”: the innumerable small
issues that cumulatively can wreak havoc on daily work. Sand can take
the form of applications that always seem to have errors, progress updates
that arrive too late, or workloads that skyrocket and then crash. Sand
is ubiquitous, especially at the front line. But a project-based approach is too
cumbersome to work at such a granular scale: the only way to deal with
sand is to catch it as it comes in and constantly sweep it away. That means
empowering, coaching, and trusting people at all levels of the organization
to see the problems (the sand) all around them, trace their root causes (where
the sand is coming from), and take steps to solve them (to sweep
the sand away).
To understand what good problem solving looks like, we pay another visit to
Mary and her team. Her experience shows that treating problems as
opportunities to improve, together with applying the principles, tools, and
mind-sets that lean management fosters, effectively weaves problem
solving into the fabric of an organization. Instead of dismissing everyday
operating problems as routine, too trivial to bother with, or unfixable,
lean organizations seek problems out, search relentlessly to find their root
causes, and engage the people most affected by them in helping to
develop a cure.
The problem solving that Mary’s team undertakes represents a significant untapped source of
value in most organizations.
It starts with a careful procedure for assessing how the work is currently being performed.
Process confirmations—first discussed in the introduction to section two—play a role by
uncovering aspects of a standard process that may not be working as well as they could be.
When conducting a process confirmation, the leader is looking both at whether the team
member needs help and whether the standard itself needs revision.
Here, the issue with the process is clear: a technical glitch with the form. When it happens
twice in one week, Axel realizes that it needs a second look. He therefore asks his colleagues
who directly experienced the problem to form a team—that way, the people working on
the problem can accurately describe what it is and the impact it is having on their work. Rather
than suggest a solution himself, he relies on his team to do so because they are closer to
When Graciela pushes back, suggesting that the problem is too small to bother with, Axel
reaffirms that small problems are important. He understands that it is all too easy to allow
small problems to fester until they turn into big ones that are far more expensive and difficult to
cure. Moreover, he knows that his organization has allocated a certain amount of time
specifically for problem solving. This step, crucial to enabling problem solving at scale, is
possible because of the productivity gains that a transformed organization achieves; in
essence, the organization reinvests some of the current productivity improvement to enable
further improvement in the future.
The dialogue among Carlos, Eric, and Graciela illustrates what a simple problem-solving process
should look like and how a team can avoid the typical pitfalls that make problem solving
so inconsistent in most organizations. The most important to resist is the impulse to jump to
conclusions—such as Graciela did when she assumes the problem is a coding error or
Eric did when he suggests it’s only one provider that is at issue. But the team presses forward
in a more rigorous problem-solving process.
They start by defining the problem, comparing what should be happening against what
actually is happening—the 15 minutes of lost productivity when the form fails. They identify
and test potential root causes, repeatedly asking why a particular result is happening.
Once Carlos’s colleagues have developed a solution, Graciela and Eric test and validate it.
Carlos then calls his colleagues to ask them to implement the fix.
The team thinks that they are done, but in fact they are not. There are more levels of
questions to ask—classically, root-cause problem solving suggests “five whys.” Carlos’s
solution only reaches two whys, so Axel pushes the team further.
The final conversation with Mary illustrates the power and limits of escalation. Her involvement
is necessary because there is a budgetary issue that only she can solve. But she does
not herself offer a solution; instead, as Axel did before her, she asks the people who know the
problem best to assemble a team.
In this case, the immediate problem has been solved, but a real resolution will be possible only
with additional effort over a period of several weeks, months, or perhaps even longer.
Accordingly, Mary adds it to her midterm planning. Sometimes referred to as a “tactical
implementation plan,” this provides a structure for working on longer-term changes
that may be necessary to resolve a problem fully, detailing the steps required to achieve the
change, when the steps will occur, and who will be responsible.
This section’s articles and interviews touch on many of these points. The first, “Building a
problem-solving culture that lasts,” identifies the five traits that leaders must develop
in themselves so that their organizations can solve problems consistently and effectively.
Those that do create a capability that is fundamental to continuous improvement,
not just for the organization but also for its employees, whose emotional investment in
their work deepens.
Next, Carlos Zuleta Londoño, chief operating officer at the Colombian pension-fund
administrator Porvenir, explains how the company is enhancing its industry-leading customer
experience while also improving productivity. He argues that innovation is not the search
for a big idea but rather the ability to keep implementing small ideas that have a powerful
cumulative impact. Additionally, he notes that “the best ideas tend to come from the
people on the front line who serve customers and operate core processes day in and
The realization that leaders need to step out of the way and enable their teams to solve
problems for themselves is one of the messages in “Performance from problem solving:
An interview with three leaders at MassMutual.” As one of the company’s executives points
out, “the changes we needed to make were much more at the leadership level than at
the front line.” It is also important to bear in mind the ultimate purpose a company is working
toward: “solving problems is not the goal; the goal is to help the organization improve.”
Download the PDF version of this article, Discovering better ways of working (PDF–114KB).