Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute University recently published a paper called “Creating a Problem-Solving Culture,” using research from studies of real-world business leaders. The primary conclusion of this paper is that today’s business world is much too complex and dynamic to limit the number of people in an organization that can help solve problems. With that in mind, many employees still need to be trained and empowered to contribute.

In the survey, when respondents were asked who should be responsible for solving problems in an organization, these were the results:

  • Managers or senior managers: 16 percent
  • Frontline supervisors or staff: 10 percent
  • Executives: 0 percent
  • Everyone in the company: 75 percent

Not only did 75 percent of the survey respondents believe that everybody in the company needed to work to solve problems, the paper also reported that a majority of companies have begun to train employees to encourage, educate and empower them to do this very thing. Progressive businesses have learned that they can’t just expect team members to know how to solve business problems on their own; but they also need the proper tools in place.

Having a Process in Place to Solve Problems

Most people solve all kinds of problems all the time. This might be why the notion that employees really need to have training in proper processes to solve business problems may have seemed difficult for executives, business owners, and managers to grasp in the past. After all, management may come to work with training from their business degrees or executive training programs. Business leaders may have gained their positions because they were natural problem solvers. But that doesn’t help the people working on the floor or in the field of most companies, and that is where a majority of operational problems are likely to originate.

One example of using business process management to solve a problem is the case presented on Enterprise Minnesota of a company that manufactured and designed farm equipment. During the manufacturing process, the production line for balers kept running out of a particular part that the welders needed. Because of this intermittent and mysterious issue, they needed to interrupt work and wait to access more parts. The welders and supervisors knew that the problem kept recurring, but they didn’t understand why it did.

The company employed a problem-solving process that allowed them to keep tracing the source of the part a step at a time. They finally pinpointed the issue to a new ordering system and the way that orders were entered into the system. In short, the welders were in place to discover the problem, but they didn’t have familiarity with the ordering system. It took a problem-solving process and cooperation between departments to isolate the issue and fix it to everybody’s satisfaction.

The welders were probably excellent problem solvers in their own line of work, but that team needed the tools to move beyond their own unit. The lack of a part in their department was only a symptom of a problem that occurred elsewhere.

Uncovering Lots of Problems isn’t a Bad Thing

All business suffer problems. In some cases, these issues may have been suffered through for years. Very often, a problem might be a symptom of a bigger issue or even the cause of other issues. In any case, undetected, these issues can hurt productivity and reduce business growth and profitability. The business culture needs to rid itself of the notion that discovering and documenting issues that impact productivity, customer service, or even employee motivation is in any way negative.

This isn’t meant to argue that every business issue can be solved with the resources at hand, but there is no way to make a good decision about the wisdom of investing in a solution if problems don’t get identified and analyzed. Having a problem-solving process in place gives a company a system for identification, communication, analysis, and decision making. It may not solve every problem; but it can help employees understand if the problem can get solved or just needs to get coped with.

Business Process Management

Once empowered to solve problems, many of the issues uncovered by employees will have to do with the processes they use every day. The general way to integrate process improvements into a company may be through the use of a business process management framework or BPM. Consider the basics of BPM and how it helps companies build a problem-solving culture:

Process mapping: Each business process can have each step mapped out in order to make it easy to visualize and describe how the system works and where issues might originate. In the example of the farm equipment producer above, this could easily create an image of the steps that the missing part needed to go through to get to the welders.

Process analysis: The flowcharts and diagrams created in the mapping process can be analyzed by asking questions about them. These are samples of these kinds of questions:

  • Which parts of the process do employees complain about the most?
  • Where do the most bottlenecks seem to occur?
  • Where is the source of an issue that seems to display symptoms in another part of the process but can’t be explained by that process?

Problem communication: These graphical representations and text explanation of issues, analysis, and suggestions can also be shared with upper management, supervisors, and employees. This makes it easy to communicate issues and accept feedback.

Process redesign: After a list of possible resolutions have been gathered, it’s time to decide which solution should be implemented. In the example of the missing welding part, it might be simple enough to fix the ordering process without a lot of discussion. Maybe the purchasing department needs better training for the new software, or perhaps there is an actual bug in the software that needs to get fixed.

However, a lot of business problems are much more complex than this. For problems with complex or expensive resolutions, it might be necessary to conduct further analysis:

  • Impact analysis
  • Risk analysis
  • Failure mode & Effects analysis
  • Customer experience analysis

Obtain resources: Once the solution has been selected, resolution could require additional resources. Often, this will include software like workflow management, rules engines, reporting, etc. In some cases, teams might have the authority to bring these tool in themselves. In other cases, the business process management work output can be used to help create a business case to present to upper management or the boardroom.

Communicate and Implement any changes to existing procedures: The best way to illustrate the need to communicate changes is the oft-cited examples of customer service reps in call centers finding out about new marketing campaigns from their customers on the phone and not through their own corporate leadership. Involving those affected by changes in process in the discovery, analysis and resolution of the original problems helps ensure that changes are both known and accepted.

Review problem resolution performance: Business systems can be too complex to predict sometimes. It’s a good idea to monitor new processes or changes for awhile to make sure that they really resolve issues and don’t introduce any unintended consequences. This is going to take additional communication with the people who are actually performing the tasks involved.

How to Create a Business Climate of Problem Solvers

The first step is to ensure that the climate at work doesn’t discourage or denigrate those who pinpoint problems, rather employees are encouraged to identify and solve problems. Also, the focus has to be on identifying faulty processes and not faulty people. Then an additional problem-solving process should be established. Tools, like BPM and workflow management, can help ensure that problem-solving is integrated into the system to define, communicate about, analyze, and resolve issues.