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Problem Handling- An Essential Frontline Skill That Maybe Has Been Overcomplicated

June 26, 2023
Since April 20 we have published a series of articles focussed on questions a manager can ask their frontline leaders to gauge the chances of sustaining consistent desired results. Within there is an implicit skill that needs to be made explicit – the handling of problems.

First, please note the use of the word ‘handling’ as opposed to the more commonly used word of ‘solving’. Solving can, we think, give rise to a dangerous misconception – take action, problem solved, gone in one strike. Rarely is this so! Much more so, the reality is a series of actions directed at removing the problem. Thus, we handle it over a period of time – let’s therefore start with this reality. It also sets us up for small steps. More on that shortly.

Back to our series. The May 18 article discussed ‘training’ as the countermeasure skill to the problem of ‘don’t know, can’t do’. The June 1 article discussed ‘leadership’ as the countermeasure skill to the problem of ‘does know, can do, but isn’t doing’. Clearly there will be other types of problems that will emerge and will need to be ‘handled’. They will emerge at two points noted in our series.

  • During observation of the work and noting any difference between WHAT SHOULD BE HAPPENING and WHAT IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING.
  • When our daily work is being planned, reflected on, misses noted with recurring issues being addressed.

Not all problems are big ones and not all need 8 detailed steps or 5 or whatever the method may call upon. Is this the ‘possibly overcomplicated bit’. Might such overcomplication be discouraging to the frontline leader? Might we be using a sledgehammer to drive in a nail?

Hidden (often) behind the whatever number of steps will be PDCA – Plan, Do, Check, Adjust. So rather than hide it, let’s bring it to the front and simply do just that – plan our action, do what we planned, check what happened (especially the measurements), then make adjustments based on what we learned.

Like most things, a good plan sets up success. From what we see by far the biggest danger comes from making our action too big – it becomes too hard, takes too long, we lose momentum, down the ‘to do list’ it goes.

What is far more likely to bring success is breaking the big action down into a first much smaller step, doing it quickly, learning from it (or not as sometimes happens), then taking the next small step and so on. All the while in line with the larger goal.

We’ve recently practised ‘breaking down into small steps’ in 2 problem handling cycles at an intensive piggery. In both cases the initial action identified by the frontline leader was very broad with a check results time of 1 month in one case, 3 months in another. In both cases the frontline leader narrowed their focus, took a much smaller step, and could check results immediately in one case, a day later in another.

In summary … Communicate ‘problem handling’ and keep the actions small, measurable within a day or two ideally.

If you have questions re any aspect of that above, please email Oscar (