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March 27, 2013

The Danger of Jumping to Solutions

The downsizing of the last two decades has resulted in managers in most organisations having more on their plate than they can sensibly deal with. They have little or no time for the contemplation and patient study that process improvement really requires. The tendency, instead, is to jump to a solution – “We need a new IT system”; “We’ll reorganise teams”; “We need more people to handle complaints and chase work queues”.

Quite often the solution reached for is the result of the latest seminar or consultancy sales-pitch. The “packaged solution” has a lot of attraction to the harassed manager – just sign the cheque and a team of suits will take over and “do something” which may deliver some short-term benefit. The problems with this approach, however, vastly outweigh the benefits (such as they are):
• It will cost vastly more than a simple process improvement project involving internal people who really know the process working together;
• It will require huge upheaval and disruption as the pre-packaged solution is dropped (from a great height) onto the existing structure, problems and all;
• Everyone in the organisation will be offended at being told what to do by outsiders who have no real understanding of the process; and they will be shocked when word gets out about the cost. Resistance to the change will intensify and may verge on sabotage;
• It almost certainly will not solve the root-cause problems in the process because little attempt is actually made to understand the process or involve those who work in it.

As one small example, I once saw a company “jump to” an expensive IT solution which, after 18 months of upheaval, solved nothing – the real problem was poor communication between teams which could have been solved much more cheaply.

All that disruption, expense and ill-will created because managers are too busy to take the time to really work through the problem with the people, and feel they cannot release the time of their staff (who are busy dealing with all the churn and rework that the broken process is causing) to work in improvement.

It is a dilemma, and one to which there is no easy answer (I expect some consultant somewhere has a packaged solution to sell on this topic!). 

I have two questions for members of this group, therefore:

1. How do we convince managers that the way to solve the problem completely and for ever is to build a strong process improvement culture within the business?
2. How do we enable and support managers to create the time for them and their staff to really work on problems together? 

Trying to persuade people on the basis of future benefits rarely works – the promise of “jam tomorrow” convinces few in today’s over-stretched workforce.