How to develop 21st century top professional skill in your organization


The first part of this blog post draws on the results of a study by the World Economic Forum to identify the top professional skills to thrive in the 21st century Complex Problem Solving. This first part aim at helping you benchmark your organization and its ability to develop the right context to develop this skill through many questions.

This second part of the post provides some answers to these questions : what is a problem, what is problem solving, how to identify or develop a problem solver etc … In addition, it provides you with some paths to explore and make your organization a better place for people to develop and apply this skill, on a daily basis.

What IS a problem ?

If you want to make sure your people possess and apply this skill, the best to start with is to agree on what it is. A communication problem (as in Kimberley has been rude with me during last meeting) ? A collaboration problem (Now Kimberley no longer wants to work with me on this project) ? The manager being upset because someone didn’t turn up at the meeting ? A two hour meeting without any subsequent actions ?

Toyota knows this skill is the most important in their workforce. Actually, they have known it for more than 70 years. And their definition of a problem is this :

A problem is a performance gap between the measured performance (from the customer point of view) and the standard expected performance.  

Here is the fantastic news : a problem can be measured. Hurray ! As in Brené Brown TED talk, if you can’t measure it doesn’t exist. Or as Marie-Pia Ignace says that If you can’t measure it, it is not a problem, it is an issue.

Sorry to say that Complex Issue Solving is nowhere in WEF list. So the very first thing to find out about your people is a/if they know what the definition of a problem is and b/ if they are able to relate issues to actual measurable problem.

What is the nature of the problem ?

Once we have defined the problem as a gap of performance, we can understand its nature by looking at the corresponding performance indicator : is it a problem of customer satisfaction ? A problem of time management ? A problem of costs ? A problem of quality ? Employee satisfaction ?

Now it all becomes less fuzzy : rather than saying we have a problem with Kimberley, she seems upset today, we can say that we have a problem because we are 3 days late on the schedule (a problem of Time Management) and Kimberley was upset because she made it clear 3 weeks ago that if she is not given the actual contact in our offices at ${half_the_world_away} she won’t get the required inputs to proceed on her side and be on time. What we thought was the problem – Kimberley was upset – was in fact a symptom of the cause of the problem.

What has happened ? How come we didn’t take this into account ? What is to be changed in the way we do thing so that this problem does not occur again ? This completely change the way a team looks together at a problem and this is a very sound first step to try and solve it.

What IS problem solving ?

Now that we have defined what a problem is, what does it mean to solve a problem ? Is it throwing a solution to a problem ? Implementing the opinion of the HIPPO (Highest Paid Person in the rOom ?). Hiding the problem under the carpet hoping no-one would see it ?

Toyota approach is yet again plain rigorous and dead unsexy : it is based on the scientific method (17th century) applied to business : the PDCA by Shewart and Deming (from the 50’s). Problem solving is a disciplined approach :

  1. Formulate the problem as a gap of performance (hence the importance of the definition)
  2. Find the root cause of the problem. What is the context ? What has happened ?
  3. Identify a counter measure to test and fix the root cause of the problem
  4. Test the counter measure by measuring the result obtained once it is implemented
  5. If it worked, validate the counter measure and update your work standards. If it didn’t, back to point #3

This is the second part of magic in Toyota approach : the problem is solved because you can see it is on the measured performance. A very interesting side effect : relating actions to positive results the customer can see (hence the importance of a performance indicator meaningful from the customer perspective) gives purpose and meaning to team actions (refer to the work of Matthew Crawford on this topic).

This is the oh so sad news regarding the top professional skill for the 21st century. It is based on an approach defined in the 17th century, adapted to the business world in the 50s. Last but not least, it requires both intellectual and practical discipline. How #UnFutureOfWork that is ?

You might say that the actual skill is Complex Problem Solving not Problem Solving. My question is then : do you start with very difficult ski slopes when you start learning ski ? Do you start with a 18-holes golf course when you just start learning golf ? Practicing simple problem solving on a daily basis solving help you develop the skills required to deal with complex problem solving.

Making Problem Visible

Now that we defined what a problem is and how to solve it, we need to make sure that these problems are made visible so that the whole organization can … well … fix problems.

There are many different approaches to tackle this issue and yet again, Toyota is very inspiring. Since problems are Gap Of Performance, we will make them visible on the wall in the team space. This is carried out with visual management showing the performance on the key indicators that matter for the customer. Time Management, Cost Management, Quality Management, Customer Satisfaction, Employee Satisfaction : they all are updated and discussed everyday.

Looking at the performance everyday allows to make problems visible every day and react to protect the customer. Incidentally, having the performance and the problems on the wall allows the people in the team to stand next to each other in front of the problem. In terms of collaboration dynamics, this has tremendous effects. No wonder why this is one of the first lean practices that has been implemented by Software Development Agile Methodologies.

The first question

Once we have properly expressed the problem as a gap of performance, we are on the right track. The first question then to ask is Why ? How come this problem happened. As MIT Professor Steven J. Spear explains “What is the thing we don’t know about the process that the process is trying to whisper in our ear ?”. The first question asked when a problem is made visible is probably one of the thing that shapes the most the culture of your organization : if it is Who ? then something needs to change to foster a culture of problem solving.

The reason is : we want to find the root cause of the problem so that this problem does not occur again and again. Also we want to make sure we try to fix a cause and not a symptom.

Problem solvers : hiring

One of the question in the first blog post was How to recruit problem solvers ?

The best way is to question them on a business problem they have faced during their carreer. Was their problem measured ? Is this a valid problem as per the definition above ? What was the impact for the customer ? What was the intellectual process to solve the problem ? Jumping to a solution ? Incriminating colleagues or managers ? Or rather investigating root cause ? Testing counter measures ? How does the person knows the problem was solved ? Does she come back to measured results ?

Problem solvers : developing

The other question is how to develop problem solvers.

Since problem solving is a skill, the best way is for people to practice this skill (refer to the eye opening The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle), i.e. to practice PDCA. Which means you develop people ability to solve problem by:

  1. making problem visible thanks to visual management and daily follow-up
  2. coaching them on problem solving, everyday
  3. help them reflect on what they have learned while solving the problem

The awesome thing about daily practice of problem solving is that performance improvement is just a by-product : the actual objective is learning. Making problem solving the keystone of your organisation likewise Toyota transforms your organisation into a learning organisation.

The actual root reason why Complex Problem Solving is such a valued skill is because it helps develop what Eric Ries Lean Startup calls Validated Learning.  As Mary Poppendieck said :

In any industry nowadays, the fastest learner wins. if your competitor are faster learners then you’re in trouble”

Another extremely valuable side effect : this changes completely the role of the manager : from command and control to manage improvement and coach problem solving, in a view to develop their people.

Building a company around problem solving

When people look from bird eye view to Toyota they get excited by the number of improvements suggested by the employees every year :

The average Toyota employee Contributes more than 100 improvement ideas each year. That quickly adds up to millions of ideas. Certainly most of them are incremental ideas, in fact, most of them probably are not even new ideas. But while the actual ideas are important, even more important is the culture In which this spirit is nurtured.

This does not happen because Toyota has invested in the biggest idea box in the industry.  This happens because Toyota has built their whole organisation around this very skill so that everyone, at every level of the organisation solves problem every day. Problem Solving is a daily practice at Toyota and at every Lean organisation.

Continuous Improvement in a time of disruptive innovation

One of most common misconception nowadays is to believe that solving problems and continous improvement are not the required strategy in a time of “disruptive” innovations.

This is not understanding where innovation comes from as the likes of Paul Graham, David Heinemeier Hansson, Scott Berkun or former Google CTO Douglas Merrill all agree that innovation comes from the desire to solve a problem. There has been some very embarassing and completely off the mark quote on the topic.

During Lean IT Summit 2017, Daniel Jones has identified this very misconception as one of the main obstacles to leverage digital capabilities in organization – one of the main challenges in 21st century organization.

What is your strategy to develop this skill ?

So what is your strategy to develop this skill within your organization ? How will you know you are on the right track ? What will it change in the way you lead your organization ?

1 Comment

  1. I appreciate this thoughtful and detailed article. It’s always great (and very helpful) to review the steps and process involved in problem solving as we’re often in such a rush just to get to a solution or answer, part of the analysis could be overlooked and we’re still just treating symptoms. Thank you!

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