BrainTrust Query: Does ‘problem-solving’ solve problems?

Discussion
Jan 08, 2007

By Ian Percy, President, The Ian Percy Corporation

RetailWire has downright brilliant people offering their insights and solutions to problem after problem… problems with growth strategies, employees, competition, pricing, sales, customer service, technology, manufacturing ­ you name it. Each day brings another retail “hot issue.” You’d think we’d have figured most everything out by now, wouldn’t you? How long do we have to keep hitting our heads with the hammer?

Here’s the problem: fixing problems isn’t going to fix the problem. Not really. And it’s certainly not going to deliver a highly profitable joy-filled leading-edge transformed purpose-driven organization. We’ve got to rid ourselves of this insane, stress-filled, money-losing firefighting mentality before it does us all in. I swear, we keep doing it because we literally don’t know what else to do. Trust me – retail will feel good when you stop.

Instead, I’m suggesting, we need to step back and take a whole-system look at what we’re doing and at the flow (or lack thereof) within that whole-system. As the quantum gurus are telling us, it’s all energy – everything is all part of one big flow of energy. Well if that’s the way the world works, why don’t retailers work the world that way? What if the ‘answer’ we seek really is a matter of going with the flow? What if a profitable retail business could be almost effortless? (If you listen carefully you can hear some people’s minds shut even at the prospect that this could be true! They’d rather be problem-solving.)

To those still with me, I want to offer three things to think about. There’s much more to whole-system thinking but this will get us started.

  • The problem you think you have is never the problem you have.
    Anyone who has ever repaired a roof knows that the leak isn’t where the water
    is dripping down. What you really need to change may be upstream or downstream
    from where the pain is. Avoid knee-jerk solutions and look at the whole-system
    first.
  • It’s not about what you think; it’s about how you think.
    The sheer fact you’re looking for the next big idea means that idea is outside
    your current mind-set or you wouldn’t be looking for it. The more experienced
    and expert we are, the more our minds have been programmed to think in certain
    limiting ways. What we need around us are ‘positive deviants’ who can expand
    our thinking. (Check out BrainTrust Panelist Ryan Matthews’ remarkable work
    here.)
  • You need ask only ONE question before you make any decision. And
    that question is: Will this enable or disable flow in this organization?
    Most current policies and procedures disable flow. So does a great
    deal of management behavior. Decrease your disablers and increase your enablers
    and you won’t believe the energy that will flow – right into your bank account!

I’ve been enabling organizations for 35 years and nothing has been more difficult than getting senior leaders to take a whole-system approach to profitable transformation. Unfortunately, from our first day of school, we’ve been taught to problem-solve one problem after another. It really is time to change that thinking.

Discussion Questions: Do you agree that retailers need to change from ‘problem-solving’ to a ‘whole-system’ approach if they want profitable transformation? Why is it so hard to convince people to change how they think?

Ian Percy is one of RetailWire’s BrainTrust Panelists. You can learn more about his work at www.IanPercy.com and www.ProfitableTransformations.com

Click here for a free download Ian’s 97-page book – The Profitable Power of Purpose

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24 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: Does ‘problem-solving’ solve problems?"


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Ed Dennis
Guest
Ed Dennis
11 years 1 month ago
Problem solving is most often not possible without problem identification occurring first. Many problems that we encounter are a byproduct of a process that was intended to make something better or easier. Sometimes solving a problem will create more problems as a byproduct than the actual solution is worth. I am familiar with a billing situation that undercharges .035% of a customer base for a service. The revenue loss is over $1,000,000 a year but the cost of the fix is estimated to be over $3 million. A decision was made to leave the problem alone and to instead use the 3 million to examine new systems to replace the current system. As long as a problem is not impacting consumers negatively then deal with it as a long term problem. If it is hurting your customer then use patches or temporary fixes. You can even get the customer to help by telling them they are a part of a test program and asking them to call a number if they notice an error. Reward… Read more »
Bill Bittner
Guest
Bill Bittner
11 years 1 month ago
Ian, I will not have time to read all your material before preparing this comment this morning so I apologize in advance if I am off target. I think the fundamental weakness with “problem-solving” is that the very fact it is necessary dictates a myopic approach that “stops the pain.” Then, after the immediate impact is alleviated there needs to be a follow-up review that looks at the big picture. I think the real reason the big picture is never addressed is that the potential problem-solvers do not really know the whole story. There needs to be a hand-off from the “problem-solvers” to the “problem-avoiders.” The problem-avoiders are the senior members of the organization who have the big picture in mind and can recognize the sequence of events that lead up to problems. Supposedly this would be the senior management, but too often the problem-solvers at the Board Level have brought in senior management who don’t really understand the organization they now run. It doesn’t mean that the Board should not exercise their prerogative but… Read more »
Sue Nicholls
Guest
Sue Nicholls
11 years 1 month ago
Many times when our clients (including retailers and suppliers) think they have a particular business issue, it ends up being something much different than they originally thought. This is very apparent when analyzing data, which is so readily available at all levels of 1) geography (from market to retailer to banner to store); 2) time periods (from yearly to monthly to weekly to daily to hourly); 3) product (from store to department to category to segment to brand to item); and 4) data variable (dollars, units, tonnage, profit, distribution, baseline vs incremental, promoted vs non-promoted). Having standard scorecarding and reports in place is critical to ensure that organizations stay focused on what is important to their overall business and objectives. The scorecards should allow different levels in the organization to drill down one or two levels deeper, based on levels of responsibility. This prevents organizations from going too “low” into the data at too “high” of a level, and creating issues out of things that actually aren’t as big of priorities as they may think… Read more »
Mark Lilien
Guest
11 years 1 month ago

Ian and Ryan see The Big Picture. Change often feels risky and painful. Trust takes time to establish, and is usually built step by step. The result? Generally, leaders gain credibility by addressing small problems first, then larger and larger ones. It’s hard to gain trust without a track record. Missouri isn’t the only “show me” state.

Bernie Slome
Guest
Bernie Slome
11 years 1 month ago

Problem solving solves problems if they go to the root of the problem. If they are quick-fixes, they never solve the root cause and the problem reoccurs. Problem solving must be approached as a chess game. What are the causes and effects of each move? When done in this manner, than there can be improvement, not just putting a finger in the dike.

David Zahn
Guest
11 years 1 month ago
Ian provides a solid reminder to “look at the big picture” before delving in and tinkering. His call to systemic thinking is certainly well founded and prevents the “forest from the trees” syndrome we often see in the industry. I don’t know that “problem solving” is the “problem” here though as much as it is the need to “check off the box” on the professional “To-Do” list. In our efforts to show progress and prove that our activities are worthwhile for the organization, it is easier to show “tangible” evidence that work was accomplished. “Thinking” is not held in high regard in corporate-land when compared to action (even action that will cause re-actions and a need to “undo-actions.”). Are we “guilty” of rushing in to problem solve too quickly and grabbing the first “seemingly viable” explanation for the “problem” and working like the Dickens to resolve it? Sure. Should we do that? No. But the “process” of problem solving is neutral in that. It is the application and motivation of the user that is the… Read more »
Ryan Mathews
Guest
11 years 1 month ago
Bravo for Ian! Of course the problem is that we look at problems in isolation! We need to fix the fix, not fix the problem. For years I’ve argued a more radical statement of the same sentiment, i.e., that there really are no business problems as we tend to think about them, just cultural problems (the anthropological equivalent of Ian’s quantum physics metaphor). It’s not that any of the problems we — or any other group of business thinkers — pontificate about can’t be solved. Most of them have been around so long they are, after all, not really problems anymore but more like industry cliches. The RFID “problem” isn’t really any different than the “problem” of bar codes. The industry has no coherent way about thinking about new technologies and clearly doesn’t want one. It isn’t important to understand why we can’t solve our problems as an industry as much as it is to know why we don’t want to because the truth is most of them are disturbingly simple. So again, Ian is… Read more »
Len Lewis
Guest
Len Lewis
11 years 1 month ago

I would certainly agree that a change in approach and thinking is in order. but wouldn’t you agree it’s hard, if not impossible, for an organization to do that when they have to put out fires on a daily basis? And for public companies, how much of a change in thinking — or in the corporate culture — can be accomplished when you have Wall Street breathing down your neck about the next quarter’s numbers?

Let’s talk about some examples where this has successfully taken place.

Charles P. Walsh
Guest
Charles P. Walsh
11 years 1 month ago
Ian provides us all with a fresh perspective to an issue which dogs most large and small companies. Remaining relevant and moving forward requires a “strategic” versus “tactical” approach. The fact that Ian doesn’t use these tired and oft mis-applied terms hints at his brilliance, and most likely his effectiveness, in changing his client’s (leaders within companies) ability to deal with the issues which challenge them. I spent 20 plus years within the corporate offices of large retail operators and can attest to the difficulties which retailers face in understanding core issues, developing approaches which take into account all of the elements impacting or impacted by the issue and finally creating and implementing solutions all the while focusing on the day to day business. Most often than not, decisions are made too slowly, or too quickly, and are often impacted by the current business climate, be it good or bad. In good times there is little motivation to be proactive and in bad times plenty of motivation to be reactive. In todays environment of constant… Read more »
Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
Guest
11 years 1 month ago

Problems generate and dictate a myopic perspective. If you understand that and step back to figure out root causes, the systemic perspective emerges. Technological advances make a systemic perspective reasonable, viable, and possible. However, collaboration is still not an established model in the business world and a systemic view doesn’t work without collaboration. Ian and Ryan have it right — this view is necessary for success.

Unfortunately, collaboration is not well understood, commonly practiced, or routinely valued. While a systemic view provides a better perspective on problems, collaboration is required for moving forward to solve the problems.

Herb Sorensen
Guest
11 years 1 month ago
Occasionally, I have irreverently asked, would it help if you had God on your board of directors? I don’t intend this as any kind of religious question. I think the answer is that perfect knowledge and perspective will NOT help many organizations that have built infrastructure that would frustrate it. After 30+ years of studying shoppers and their behavior in the aisles of supermarkets, on behalf of the worlds largest brands, a few years ago we “accidentally” began a whole store perspective. I say accidentally, because when we began whole store RFID studies, tracking shoppers from the entrance to checkout, wall to wall, door to door, so to speak, and close to a census basis, a picture began to emerge which we hadn’t begun to dream of. This was kind of a back door systems approach, since we didn’t start with a conception of the system and then determine what to measure. We just measured everything, and then looked for the system that drove it. I’ve mentioned this before here, but the single most common… Read more »
Michael L. Howatt
Guest
Michael L. Howatt
11 years 1 month ago

Hmmm, an interesting discussion. Is the holistic issue always more important than the single, daily issues, generally? Would companies be better served by identifying the underlying problems revolving around their immediate needs? Of course. However, the real problem that hinders this type of thinking is that there are so few people put into an environment of doing it.

We all grew up in a task-oriented world with immediate pressures to perform. Our daily “fires” become so numerous that we have little time to step back and gain an overall perspective. Companies who succeed create an atmosphere that promotes thinking and then they strategically make the changes, giving employees the actual ability to accept it.

Race Cowgill
Guest
Race Cowgill
11 years 1 month ago
For clarity, let me restate the question and its answer: retail isn’t solving its problems because retail focuses on symptoms, not the root cause; the root cause is retail’s thinking or mind-set, because that mind-set interrupts flow of information. I’m so sorry that I’ve not been able to read your book, Ian. Without verifiable data, I believe it is difficult to know what the root causes of problems are. It appears that in most cases, without data, this discussion devolves into an argument based on the participants’ personal belief systems. I have seen this happen at a number of the executive seminars held at the Aspen Institute — the CFOs say the problems under discussion are rooted in weak financial structure, the COOs say they are rooted in weak operational structure, the HR folks say they are rooted in weak hiring and development practices. Huge amounts of data exist that would illuminate this topic (including actual case studies), but very few people have access to that data or know how to generate it. It could… Read more »
John Lansdale
Guest
John Lansdale
11 years 1 month ago

“System” is just another way of looking at “problem.” But without a doubt, I’ve been guilty of starting to work on what at first looked like “problem.” Just as often, I’ve expected the issue to be “system” where there was “problem.” Thanks for bringing up this provocative idea.

Al Rider
Guest
Al Rider
11 years 1 month ago

Great, thoughtful postings on this subject. And rightfully so, since so much of a company’s resources are devoted to solving problems. I believe it was Peter Drucker who said, “If everybody is solving problems, then who’s taking care of the opportunities?” And therein this question lies the conundrum.

We get what we focus on. Want more problems, just look for them. The root problem with problem solving is that we can never know, with absolute certainty, the entire problem space.

We grow in the direction of our thoughts and our focus.

We need to focus on possibilities and potential, and look for ways of adding value, not for problems. Many problems will disappear for lack of attention.

Carol Spieckerman
Guest
11 years 1 month ago

I don’t believe that problem-solving vs. whole system approaches is an either/or proposition. Ideally, they work in tandem with the whole system as the visionary piece and problem-solving as the day-to-day maintenance of that vision. I’ll be a contrarian and say that I see a few courageous retailers attempting to take that ideal approach (Wal-Mart and Federated come to mind). Courageous because of the inevitable and swift backlash from those who are much more comfortable with one-thing-at-a-time problem-solving, further fueled by belief in scarcity over abundance. Look for statements like “Why in the world are you focusing on sustainability instead of solving (pick your issue)…?” or “Once they started talking about partner benefits, everything went out the window…” or “They owe it to their core customer to…”

Ian Percy
Guest
11 years 1 month ago
This exchange has been both enlightening and fun – thank you all for very insightful comments. I hope there will be more yet. Let me throw another log on the fire for those still following this chain. I believe traditional big-four-type “consulting” is in decline. Those of us seeking to help others grow, be more efficient, generate higher customer loyalty, find meaning, innovate, make more money — in short, transform — urgently need to rethink how we do that — in short, transform the transformers. There is a ‘stirring of the waters,’ a restlessness out there that is asking for new, courageous and different thinking. Somehow we know there is a resource (to use old limiting jargon) that we have not tapped into yet. I believe in a universe of abundance more than capable of delivering on our highest imagination. Some eyes will roll with this kind of language I know, but my own work and the work of many of you is to understand the power we have more completely and to learn how… Read more »
Li McClelland
Guest
Li McClelland
11 years 1 month ago
Solving problems IS really hard, isn’t it? That’s because defining problems has always been an art not a science. Whether problems are being viewed holistically or piecemeal, whether the process is in the hands of a consultancy or being managed in house, the problem being “solved” can only ever be as it is perceived and understood. As Race points out, even in the best managed companies, different organizations within them have turf and reputations to protect. Individuals on the fast track within companies have it in their DNA to undercut potential rivals. The most competent outsiders may have unrecognized biases or a product or point of view they are trying to sell. Or, their expertise may be in other areas which subtly affect their understanding of the issues. On the other hand, pure data is useful and can be quite eye-opening, but not as neutral as some would like to think. We participants in the discussion here all know that numbers can be manipulated to say anything. Additionally, data alone is colorless and can be… Read more »
Mark Burr
Guest
11 years 1 month ago
There is a saying that goes something like this: “Until the pain of change is less than the pain of staying the same, change will not occur,” or something like that. The point is, it’s less painful to just stay the same unless of course you get run over by a train. It’s easier to be reactive as long as it still works and you’re not killed by it. The reality is getting killed by staying the same usually happens eventually, yet it’s never in the strategic plan. In response to Ian’s second question, where do we go from here? Well, few will go anywhere in reality. However, a few will. They will surprise us. We’ll write about them here. We’ll marvel at their greatness and we’ll completely miss the simplicity that was their success. They will do so with a concept that is not terribly difficult and it won’t be an original thought. They will however get there by thinking about doing it in a way that had never originally been done.
Kai Clarke
Guest
11 years 1 month ago

Change management and organizational behavior is a difficult thing to manage. Add to this the transition of moving from a tactical perspective to a strategic perspective, and this presents itself as an insurmountable hurdle for almost any organization. Instead of moving into a strategic problem solving mode, it is always better to first manage the organizational change systems and structures, and then propose small, manageable strategic shifts which can address some of the issues which are part of the problem. Because of the structures and layers in an organization, identifying the real problem is very difficult, and may not really be necessary, if the outcomes are solved instead.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
11 years 1 month ago
Thanks, Ian, you’ve given me the opportunity to trot out my mountain and molehill theory of life (and business). This hypothesises that when you declare a problem to be a mountain then you are excused for failing to solve it because the mountain was too high. When you declare a problem to be a molehill then you are a hero for solving it. Translated to management speak, it depends on whether you see problems as threats or opportunities. When I see problems, I frequently revert to my high school Latin teacher’s chant, “context will tell.” If you look at the whole picture, it can be easier to deal with a situation and come up with an acceptable solution. Having been referred to, I am told, as a “flaming liberal” by some RW readers, I will now go look at Ryan’s work and see if I am actually a “positive deviant.” Judging by the name, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that shoe fits as well. As soon as I get back home in two… Read more »
Ryan Mathews
Guest
11 years 1 month ago

Len, it’s precisely this kind of thinking that kills companies. Of course there are daily fires but Ian’s point is that if you focus on them you’re focusing on the wrong level. And, of course, you can always fall back on the demons of Wall Street, but the truth is Wall Street rewards those with a bold strategy for turning a company around. Wal-Mart didn’t get to be the darling of the street by saying, “Well, we’re an under-capitalized company, operating in terribly trading areas nobody else wants and selling below those razor thin margins our more enlightened retail brethren are always bleating on about.” Raise the level of the thinking and you raise the level of the opportunity. P&G did it. Microsoft did it. Apple has done it. And, if you think about it, so have dozens and dozens of other companies. Same discussion equals same result. It’s that simple.

Stephan Kouzomis
Guest
Stephan Kouzomis
11 years 1 month ago

The positive ‘Big Picture’ responses do suggest that all business entities need to educate their personnel in such a fashion.

Most importantly, the need to solve a problem, or address an issue, should be evaluated on not how fast it has been corrected, but if it has solved the initial situation and bettered the whole process!

But, as we know in today’s ‘cookie cutter’ world, thinking out the problem and the time spent to correct it is less important than stocking shelves, and quickly and cosmetically fixing the problem.

Note: Short term fixing doesn’t mean long term solving of the problem! Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

Vahe Katros
Guest
11 years 1 month ago
I liked the opening line of the piece, to paraphrase: The group has brilliant contributors and you would think that as brilliant people we would have stumbled into a universal truth, but we haven’t because our thinking is flawed and I am going to tell you why and than ask you if you agree. Transforming people into critical unbiased thinkers is a heavy challenge — The writer has been working on this for 35 years and “nothing could be harder” is that a surprise? To quote Tolstoy: “Small minded people think that the human condition changes with each generation.” The writer is not small minded, he is being hopeful and I want to play the role of positive deviant. Did I just bias you the reader by saying that? Do I have an agenda? Has this piece been framed in a way that is flawed or biased? Are these important questions that someone would ask if they took a whole-systems approach to this discussion relating to the need to change the way we think? Is… Read more »
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