Problems: Big and Small

How you think is everything. 
     ~Investors Business Daily

The phone rings: it’s one of your followers. If you think there’s good news coming, you’re in for a disappointment: “Boss, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but……” 

How often do you get calls like that?

Industrial operations like yours have been hard at the process of defect elimination for the better part of four decades. No doubt you’ve gotten really good at it. If you’re closing in on the six sigma level of performance – 3.4 defects per million opportunities – those calls with bad news should be few and far between. Translating that into safety metrics, an injury frequency rate below .7 is six sigma performance. 

The math suggests there should be a steady stream of good news to report.

Note the word, should. In theory, practice and theory are the same.  I’m willing to bet you’re still getting a lot of those, “Hey, Boss, we have a problem” kind of calls.

That begs a question: honestly now, when you’re on the receiving end of that kind of call, what are you thinking? 

Regarding Disappointment

I knew a leader who handled bad news so poorly his followers had to figure out a strategy to break bad news to the boss. Timing was everything. Late afternoons were determined to be way safer than first thing the morning. Except on afternoons before weekends and holidays, which was even worse. Could the news possibly be postponed to next week?

That leader happened to be the plant manager in a huge chemical plant employing several thousand. Suffice to say, there were a lot of problems, big and small, and consequently a lot of time devoted to managing the news.

Not hard to figure out what most of those good people working there thought about problems. Not to mention the lengths they would go to figure out how that problem didn’t need to be reported up the chain of command…or maybe just never happened in the first place.

Honestly, nobody likes getting calls like those, or giving them, either. The only people who take delight in passing along bad news work in the news business, where the worse the news, the better the ratings.

Upon hearing about any problem, you’re bound to be disappointed. That wasn’t the intended outcome. Fair to say, the size of your disappointment is directly proportional to the magnitude of the problem. 

But getting past that, how do you really think about getting bad news?

Are you of the view, “Sorry to hear that happened, but at least we know what’s not working. Now, what do we do to make sure the next time, it happens the way we want it to?” 

Or is your reaction more like, “That’s awful. How could something like that happen? Who’s responsible?”

Those are the extremes, and there’s a lot of space in the middle. But, good leader that you are, you’re thinking, “You’ll have to tell me more about the problem. Then, I’ll tell you what I’d be thinking about that news.”

Fair enough. Problems do come in all kinds of sizes and shapes, from big and awful to small and unintended. If nothing else, there really shouldn’t be a one size fits all response to getting news about problems.

There’s that word should again.

Another leader I once worked for would respond to bad news by asking, “Who’d you shoot?” Give him a name and a payroll number, he’d go away happy. Trained as a PhD, he was a division president.

A lot of those problems were caused by people reporting to me. There were a lot of days I felt like a criminal defense attorney, defending the record of people who were good, but far from perfect. The problems they caused were the type that got a lot of scrutiny up the chain of command: spills, releases, notices of violation and injuries. As to mistakes that involving business strategy, investment decisions, or leadership, well, let’s just say that problems caused by poor management were treated differently.  A lot differently. 

I’m sure you’re familiar with that problem.

The Nature of Problems

Whether you’re on the giving or receiving end of bad news about performance – all sorts, not just safety problems – you’d do yourself a favor to analyze your thinking on the subject when you’re not in the heat of the battle. 

Now would not be a bad time.

Try asking yourself a few questions about problems in your operation: 

  • In a typical day or week, how often to things not go as they should?
  • How many of those situations cause events that produce real negative consequences?
  • What portion of those problems do I know about? 
  • What portion of those problems can I actually do something about?
  • What are the problems I know nothing about?

Smart leader that you are, you’re already reading those five questions again, this time from the bottom up. You’re now thinking this about the nature of problems: you can’t fix what you don’t know is broken. And if you don’t fix the problem, it’s going to happen again. 

This isn’t that complicated.

Think that way, you’re ahead of both of those leaders described above.  One would rather not hear about a problem and the other thought every problem could be solved by administrative corrective action. That was decades ago. Both have gone on to their reward, leaving nobody around who thinks that way, right?

In their defense (there I go again, defending people) they were bright, very successful, well-educated, but not well trained on the subject of managing problems.  Not many leaders are. 

And even those who are “trained” don’t necessarily think in a reasonable way about problems. 

Thinking Better About Problems

What is a reasonable way to think about the kind of problems you encounter at work? Given that this is a newsletter, not a book or a dissertation, we’ll keep the list short. 

Starting at the top, no matter how good the performance, there are bound to be problems. Yes, product and service quality are drastically improved, and so is safety performance. But expectations have also increased, making smaller problems play a lot bigger. 

Second, no matter how big or small the problem, every problem could have been worse.

A problem is likely a Moment of High Influence. If you’re a regular reader, you know all about those Moments, as we like to call them. In a Moment, followers are sitting up and paying attention to what their leaders say and do. 

And do they!

Meaning that, when a leader like you gets one of those calls about a problem, you need to be on your A game. Because what you say and do in those Moments are going to be paid very close and careful attention to.

So much so that decades later, some former follower of yours may well be quoting you. And not in a good way.

Managing Problems – Better

If you think you have problems and you want to know about them, why not throw open the doors and invite them in? Put out the word: “I want to know about our problems. So tell me what they are. I won’t be mad; I’ll actually be happy. Because I can’t fix what I don’t know. And we all want our problems fixed.”

Around here, we call a message like that a Safety Stump Speech©: a concise statement of a leader’s “beliefs, values, philosophy, and best advice on working safely.” If you don’t have that message for problems – safety problems in particularly – you sure as heck need one!

Unless you don’t want to know about problems.

When you hear about a problem, separate cause from effect. Unless it’s an Act of God, a cause is an independent variable that is under the control of someone or something. By comparison, the effect of a cause is a dependent variable that cannot be directly controlled. Absent specific measures to mitigate them, effects are random. 

If you need an example, think about a fall. I know people who have fallen more than fifty feet, got up, dusted themselves off, and went back to work. I also know people who have fallen a few feet and never were the same.  When someone falls, there’s no telling how bad the effect will be – unless they are wearing fall protection. Then you know for sure.

Whether or not someone gets hurt, you don’t want people falling. Therein lies the beauty of near-misses, like when someone falls but doesn’t get hurt. Same cause, altogether different effect. 

But in order to take advantage of a near-miss, you have to know about it. If you know about it, you then need to get to the bottom of it. 

In getting to the bottom of it – understanding what went wrong – it’s tempting to fall for labels like, “rule known but not followed” or “management system failure” or “normalization of deviation.” Yes, those do sound impressive, and somebody might think you’re a genius at root cause. But what do terms like those really mean – in plain English?

Labels don’t shed much light on problems or lend themselves to practical solutions.

Which is the point of the exercise, is it not?

The Last Word

When it comes to problems, how you think really is everything. Think better and you’ll do better.

Paul Balmert
July 2020


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