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The Problem Behind the Problem: The Human Factor

Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to Linkedin With Daniel Lee, President & Partner of Carpedia International When workarounds become permanent solutions, your business begins to look like a certain children’s song. getty Missteps are common in the world of business. We can all remember these very public examples: A product or service is launched or discontinued without sufficient demand forecasting (“New Coke” in the 1980s) A technology or trend is underestimated (Kodak’s digital photography hesitation in the 1990s) Expansion into a new market is executed too hastily (Target’s rapid rollout of more than 100 Canadian stores in the early 2010s) Labor is cut without fully assessing the impact on customer satisfaction (The US Post Office in the 2000s, 2010s and 2020s) Large-scale change programs are rolled out without adequate training or prototyping (General Electric’s ambitious digital transformation in the late 2010s). Beyond these high-profile stories, nearly every business has its own list of lessons learned. (Our firm has several – you can find them here.) MORE FOR YOU Netflix: Marvel Dud Among Movies New On Streaming Service This Week Houston Rockets Land Third Pack In Upcoming NBA Draft As Knicks And Rangers Captivate New York, The Yankees Quietly Roll Along There’s a Hole in the Bucket “There’s a hole in the bucket.” This is a children’s song that has been around in various forms for more than 200 years. It tells a simple story of Henry, whose bucket leaks. Liza tells him to fix it. But to do that, he needs straw. To cut the straw, he needs a knife. To use the knife, he needs to sharpen it. But the sharpening stone must be damp, so he needs water. But to fetch water, he needs the bucket, and the bucket has a hole in it. The moral of the story: Problems are often more complicated than they first appear to be. So, if we learn this as children, why do we often forget it as business leaders? Three reasons stand out. First, business moves fast. The bottom line doesn’t always wait for a complete solution. Second, the closer we are to a problem, the harder it may be for us to see the way out. This “proximity paradox” occurs when workarounds stick around, and stop being seen as workarounds. The third, and arguably the most impactful, reason is that most problems involve people, and people are complicated. In consulting, it’s our job to find and help fix problems, layer by layer. On paper, solutions might seem relatively simple. Apply management principles, develop performance measurement tools, streamline processes, target the point of constraint, reduce inefficiency, and maximize productivity. These are logical stages of process improvement and organizational alignment. But if logical equaled simple, all organizations would operate at peak performance. The fact that most achieve roughly 60 to 70% of their maximum productivity for any given process tells us there’s a hole in the bucket. That operational improvement must account for the human factor. The Human Factor Years ago, our firm engaged in a process improvement project for an automotive parts manufacturer. One of our consultants observed that the plant had created its own time zone. All the clocks in the plant were set ten minutes ahead of the actual time. No one knew why except a single long-term employee, who eventually recalled that the clocks were changed many years before so that shift workers could finish early to catch a bus that came on the hour. The bus had not run on the hour for several years, but the practice had continued. This caused a problem at the injection molding machines because in the ten-minute gap, the plastic congealed, leaving the next shift to spend their first fifteen minutes purging the machines. Management was advised of the molding machine problem and decided to end the early departure practice and implement a “hot change” at the end of the shift so that the machines could keep running. Three months later, nothing had changed. Not even the clocks. What seemed like a simple change had a multitude of implications throughout the plant and directly impacted the activities of employees, production schedulers, and frontline managers. Changing the process affected how crews were scheduled and appeared to ask people to work more than they had previously. The planning standards and staging areas needed to be modified to reflect new input and output expectations, and managers now had to be physically on the floor at shift change to make sure the transition ran smoothly. Coordinating this among different shifts and different departments was more complicated than it looked on paper. We see this scenario play out repeatedly. Few process changes are simple. They often have implications for other parts of the organization, and sometimes those implications are far deeper than leaders realize until the changes are made. And sometimes, the logical solution doesn’t address the underlying problem. At a hotel resort property, there was a mismatch between when guests dined, and when the stewarding staff were available to clean dishes. A design was configured to stagger shift starts to better align staffing with the demand patterns of the restaurants. But, unique to this location, the stewarding employees lived in a neighboring community and relied on a single bus for transportation. It ran only twice per day, and the bus schedule did not align with the new shifts. This situation highlighted the often-complex balance between cost containment and labor management. The Not-So-Quick Fix Complex problems require respect, careful consideration, flexibility, and hands-on solutions. When tackling the layers added or impacted by the human factor, there are no shortcuts to effectiveness. Transformation of any kind within an organization takes time and effort. The following guiding principles offer a good place to start. 1. Create a Results Strategy and an Implementation Plan The Results Strategy is a working road map and a problem-solving tool that guides the allocation of time and resources. It articulates, in practical terms, how results will be achieved and how the impact will be realized in key indicators and financial statements. It identifies potential issues and complications that need to be considered. The strategy also sets expectations regarding activities, focus, timing, and participation. Understanding the depths of the changes being implemented is critical to success. The objective is not to make a few method changes and claim victory. Sustainable solutions often require transitioning to a new way of managing the organization. 2. Provide Managers with a Supportive Environment Managers are the lynchpin to improvement. How they schedule work, communicate expectations, follow up on performance, and problem-solve issues with their staff are vital elements to a successful change initiative. Leaders must make sure their front-line managers are prepared sufficiently in advance of a change program and have the appropriate tools they need. One key area to focus on is the alignment between strategic objectives, day-to-day performance planning, and the measurement systems designed to highlight where there are disconnects. 3. Recognize That Bumps Are Part of the Road Change affects people differently, and adjustments will not always be smooth. Many people experience what has been termed an “Emotional Cycle of Change,” navigating five distinct stages before successfully adapting. Recognizing this cycle helps people normalize the range of emotions they may experience and can help an organization respond empathetically, provide necessary support, maintain resilience, and move forward effectively. Leaders need to anticipate challenges and resistance and make sure managers understand why these reactions happen and how to manage them. 4. View the Path to High Performance as Never-Ending High performance is not an end goal but an ongoing journey. Leaders must nurture a culture of continuous improvement where each level of achievement paves the way to the next. In addressing the human factor, the not-so-quick fixes teach a valuable lesson in business problem-solving. They underscore the need for an analytical and empathetic approach to operational dilemmas, ensuring that solutions foster not just immediate benefits but sustainable progress—an approach where “fixing the hole in the bucket” considers the bucket’s purpose, design, and the person carrying the water. Follow me on LinkedIn. Check out my website or some of my other work here. Peter Follows Editorial Standards Print Reprints & Permissions

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