If I had a nickel for every time that I heard…
“Every problem is solvable!”
“Leaders exist to fix problems!”
“We’ll fix this so it can never happen again!”
“We need to prevent reoccurrence!”
Well, I’d have a lot of nickels.
Sound a bit familiar? It should. It’s the language – the “corporate speak” and key buzzwords – of our more traditional approaches to organizational improvement. Strategies that have focused heavily on rapidly fixing, approaches that have been built upon our bias towards prevention, and tactics that almost always focus on seeking out a “why” – and a response to that “why” – derived from the question “how did we fail to prevent?”
All this “fixing” feels a bit akin to the old, dusty, and cobweb covered safety mantra of “every incident is preventable!” We’ve just repackaged and repurposed that into “every problem is solvable.”
Again, we are attempting to solve complex issues through simplification, something that never seems to work out very well for us in the long run.
A focus on fixing
Our work worlds – and beyond – are chocked full of complex and often complicated problems. Allow me to be a bit bold by saying that many of these problems we face could be better described as unsolvable or “wicked problems.” In our complex and complicated work worlds, some problems are simply not fixable.
But that doesn't stop us from thinking that we can solve the unsolvable, and that we can do it swiftly and efficiently via our long lists of simplified corrective actions.
Our more normal or traditional approaches to organizational improvement revolve around this notion of fixing – and often, rapidly fixing. An event or undesirable operational surprise presents itself; we then spend hours reconstructing the chain of events, seeking out a retrospective understanding of the issue, honing in on select root cause(s), and then swiftly issuing a laundry list of “fixes” (or, corrective actions) to ensure that this undesirable issue can never be a problem for us again.
On a good day, when these approaches actually provide us something somewhat useful...
We might have solved THAT particular acute issue under those exact circumstance and conditions, we might have prevented THAT exact chain of events from reoccurring in THAT exact manner, and we might have even created a bit of acute improvement along the way.
What are the odds that THAT exact chain of events will occur in THAT exact manner again?
What are the odds that THAT particular issue will occur under those exact circumstance and conditions again?
What are the odds that these big rapid fixes will actually create more headache or problems than good?
What if these grand “fixes” are not fixes at all? What if they are just an illusion of improvement?
And, even if we did “fix” THAT issue, how long will that “fix” last in our complex work worlds?
So often we seem to “fix and forget,” believing that once the corrective actions are closed, the problem is solved and we will never have to deal with such an issue again. The problem is solved and all is well! But, in our complex work worlds (as with any complex system), that is rarely the case. Our "fixes" often result in unexpected issues in other areas. Our "fixes" don't stay fixed, degrading and breaking down over time. Our fixes only feel like fixes to us, creating headache or problems that must be worked around by those that do the work. Our complex work worlds adapt and adjust to these "fixes," creating brand new and unique situations and conditions along the way. And much, much more...
Now, we might go a step further, masking these issues with a bit of "effectiveness review" (or a similar exercise into exploring the effectiveness of all our rapid fixing). But what does that almost always tell us? "Yep, problem solved. Nailed it! Glad we never have to deal with that again!" or "It's not quite fixed yet, but the fixes are sound... we just need to do them harder! Then we'll never have to deal with that again!"
The approaches we use attempting to solve complex problems – and our grand rapid fixing – seems to come at a cost: Short term prevention of reoccurrence (maybe) for particular anomalous events, with a swift return to pre-event levels of overall organizational improvement.
We are creating short term bits of improvement that quickly fade away...
Some better assumptions
We know that our work worlds will never (ever) be perfect, that our systems will never (ever) be perfect, and that people will never (ever) be perfect. With that said, we also need to begin to understand that we rarely face “perfect,” easy to respond to, and quickly fixable types of problems in our organizations. This better understanding tells us that most of the remaining problems in our work worlds are complex, complicated, and messy things that do not have some simple and easy fix that will solve them.
Our systems can never be perfect Conditions will never be perfect People can never be perfect The problems we face will never be clean, perfect, and easily solvable issues
We must begin to recognize that "perfect" isn't really the point. We seek learning and improvement… not perfection.
We must shift our thinking around organizational problem solving and fixing.
We must move from “FIX” to “IMPROVE”
We need to become less focused on seeking out grand rapid "fixes" and we must become much more interested in deep operational learning, the micro-improvements and adjustments that this deep operational learning yields, and how these micro-improvements and adjustments accumulate and compound over time.
We need to get a lot less focused on rapidly "fixing," and a lot more focused on learning and improving over time.
Seeking out micro-improvements and adjustments
Curiosity reigns supreme in our complex (and often complicated) work worlds...
Seek to understand.
We seek to learn from those that GSD (get shit done) because only they have true knowledge (and lived experience) of how things happen in real life – we are seeking to tap into the lived reality of our work worlds.
Key idea: The people that do the work, best understand the work...
They know where things work, where things just do not work, where they must make do, where they must stretch, where our systems underperform, create headache, must be worked around, or are nearing failure.
Be curious, seek to understand, and learn deliberately and often from those that GSD.
Select mechanisms and approaches for gaining deep operational learning:
Asking Better Questions
Here is a quick guide to Learning Teams & Learning Explorations
Here is a quick guide to asking better questions
We use these approaches to gain deep operational learning, to discover or better understand areas of critical risk, to generate or improve safeguards, and to generate vitally needed micro-improvements and adjustments.
Not sure where to start?
We nearly always (and almost exclusively) spend our time and resources seeking operational learning after an operational upset, injury, quality escape, or other undesirable event.
But events are anomalies within our work worlds. Work almost always goes right; it at least goes right way more than it goes wrong. Our organizations almost always create safe and stable work.
While learning from these anomalous events is worthwhile, we must expand our thinking beyond it. We must be constantly in search of learning rich starting points.
Here area few great places to start:
A few finals words
In our complex and complicated work worlds – worlds chocked full of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity – we have picked and eaten most of the low hanging fruit. Will simple problems still present themselves from time to time? Absolutely. Will we face simple problems that can be solved with simple fixes? Sure. But be careful not to confuse these simple issues with the big, complex, complicated, and messy issues we often face.
Do not try to solve the messy and complex issues within your work world via simplification and big and rapid fixes. Often, these issues simply cannot be solved; these problems can’t be fixed… they can’t be fixed, but they can be improved.
With these complex, complicated, and messy issues – problems that do not have simple and easy fixes – it's time get a lot less focused on rapidly "fixing," and become a lot more focused on learning and improving over time.
Need a hand operationalizing these concepts within your organization?
Are you looking for a partner to help you bring HOP to life within your company?
I work with clients throughout industry - providing services to organizations operating in manufacturing, healthcare, construction, oil & gas, mining, power generation, utilities, and more - focusing on operationalizing HOP and creating sustainability along the way.
I travel globally and also offer virtual services.
Some areas I commonly help with:
- Learning Teams
- Learning Explorations & Pulsing
- Post-Event Learning Reviews
- HOP Fundamentals
- Consulting & Coaching
- Speaking & Workshops
- Site Engagements
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- Ongoing Support and Advisement
- & More...
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