The less obvious root problem

Observation #7

carpedia-observation-7If you spend enough time trying to improve processes, one of the fascinating things you will observe is that sometimes the root problem has nothing to do with the process you are trying to fix. You can apply the “Five Why?” technique until you have exhausted every avenue, and you can still entirely miss the real problem.

For example, we were once doing work for a hotel company that experienced a problem at the start of each shift: there were too many people waiting for work in a stewarding area. The simple solution was to stagger the shift start times. However, the solution wasn’t simple at all. Most of the workers in the stewarding area lived in a nearby town and all took the same bus to and from the hotel. Staggering the shift times didn’t work with the limited bus schedule, so the real problem became trying to figure out how to get the workforce transportation more aligned to the work place demands.

Another company, a retail store, experienced intermittent demand. The simple solution was to create split shifts. However, the introduction of split shifts would have created a whole series of issues for the existing workforce — and losing employees during the transition would have been a significant blow to the chain’s service reputation.

Clearly, the academic solution is often only part of the answer. (Experienced managers are usually better at understanding this than freshly minted MBAs.) Often it’s more critical to understand how changes to the process or method affect the work environment of the employees, even when they seem relatively simple. Changing work patterns destabilize employees and often puts management in new and uncomfortable situations. This is the real problem that you need to solve.