From safety to quality to productivity, there’s a trend in the way organizations have approached process-oriented movements. Starting as the responsibility of an individual or a group of people, to be successful, the movement inevitably shifts to shared accountability – it becomes the responsibility of everybody, every day. Professional problem solvers that have taken this journey are well-positioned to focus on the next level of business. First, let’s take a look back.

The History of Problem Solving: From One to Many

In the beginning, there was the safety director. That was the organizational response to the question of: How do we improve safety? Let’s hire a manager, someone with proven skills, to be the safety director. This person will be in charge of inspecting all new equipment installations and major process changes before they go into production. He or she will create a rotating audit schedule and perform monthly training. If there’s an accident or near-miss, the safety director will be the first person called and will lead the investigation to determine the root cause.

It quickly became clear that making one person responsible for everyone’s safety did not work. You could not inspect your way to a safe workplace. You could not have people working as if the goal was to simply “pass the inspection” or do what it would take to appease the safety director. Instead, individuals had to become accountable for their own actions. We began to institute behavior-based safety measures. Instead of counting the number of earplugs used as a cost, we started distributing them on the way out the door because hearing loss also occurred while mowing the grass or during household carpentry projects. Safety moved from being the primary responsibility of one person to everyone’s job. I would even dare to say: “everybody, every day.”

When painting the history of problem solving with a broad arc, we see the above trend is alive and well. This shift has moved through almost every aspect of business: From being organized with one person “in charge” and accountable, and the rest of us doing what we’re told to do, to a process-oriented system in which each of us has to be part of our own personal solution.

Think about the quality movement for a moment. I used to be a quality manager way back when and my department was organized just like almost every other of its day. I had a team of auditors and inspectors that scavenged the countryside double-checking control charts, pulling samples for acceptable quality levels and creating visual comparisons. I had quality engineers that were responsible for measuring the defect rate of processes, putting questionable product on hold, and launching investigations into why customers received out-of-specification product. On many occasions I had a chance to practice my creative writing skills as I responded to a customer complaint from the same customer for the same complaint for the second, third or even fourth time. I realized that simply telling them our normally stellar workforce will be “retrained” – yet again – would not raise our net promoter score.

That version of quality would not be good enough to put us over the top. It was certainly easy for someone to know who was responsible for quality. It was right in all of our titles – quality manager, quality engineer, quality inspector, quality auditor and so on. But when we started to learn and believe the concepts of total quality management (TQM), when we started to implement systems that everyone participated in, such as Six Sigma, when we made everyone accountable for their own quality, things started to change. Things started to change with “everybody, every day.”

Just as behavioral-based safety moved us from one person being responsible to each of us being accountable using methodologies such as the safety training observation program (STOP) and just as TQM and Six Sigma, using DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) and other methods made each of us more accountable for our own quality, Lean and its core methodologies, such as Kaizen and the eight wastes, has made each of us – not just the production supervisor – accountable for productivity. Lean allowed us to examine all of the ways that the flow of value is hindered or stopped. We had the opportunity to let everyone apply 5S, visual management and standard work to what they did. Organizations regularly saw 50 percent increases in productivity. It enabled everybody, every day. So, looking at this trend of shifting from individual accountability to shared accountability, what is next for the professional problem solver?

The Next Level of the Business

One of the common ties that binds safety, quality and productivity is their process-oriented nature that ended up driving accountability. Professional problem solvers that mastered methodologies such as Lean and Six Sigma now have the opportunity to take their abilities to create process and focus at the next level of the business.

Ten years ago, organizations that adopted Lean and Six Sigma saw them as differentiators. They were potential breakthrough strategies. Today, if you are not doing these things, well, quite frankly, you are behind. To get ahead, organizations must look to new ways to reach breakthrough, which I think fall along three lines: innovation, strategy creation and strategic planning. In the chart below, you’ll see a table of historical improvement focus areas along with the methods and tools we use to gain a strategic win – and the ways we can win in the next focus areas.

A Brief History of Problem Solving
A Brief History of Problem Solving

Let’s start with innovation, which isn’t a new topic in the performance excellence world but one that can still seem elusive. Innovation is really simply about generating remarkable ideas. We often operate such that only a relatively few smart, creative people are tasked with creating the next great thing while the rest of wait in the hall. Does that sound familiar? Not anymore. It should be “everybody, every day.”

While professional problem solvers do not have to come up with all the ideas, they can and should create and support the processes that generate those ideas. We should work toward everyone feeling accountable for thinking of new ways to achieve success with our customers. The professional problem solver needs to teach, encourage and facilitate the process. For example, the professional problem solver would set up collaboration networks that support the collection and sharing of “dots” between other team members. This sharing becomes a learned behavior that frequently leads to new products, services and significant process improvements. If everyone in your company felt accountable for ideas what a differentiator that would make!

It does not stop there. I have spent the last 10 years working with many senior leadership teams. At some point in our relationship, someone on the team will bemoan the fact that the organization lacks a process for strategy creation and only has a marginally effective strategic planning process. Most organizations try to mix the two distinct processes and many mix up the outputs of the two distinct processes.

The basic formula for organizations to create their next year’s business plan runs something like this: Pull last year’s performance data, ramp up the targets by 10 percent, and gather the top 25 leaders off-site for two days to build the plan. Then bring the plan back and announce it to the rest of the staff, spend the next two months trying to explain it, start work one quarter into the year, rinse and repeat. The abbreviated version: A few people are responsible for creating the strategy and the rest of us wait in the hall until they are done. Repeat after me, not anymore! It is time for the professional problem solver to facilitate the strategic planning process. It is also time for those problem solvers to facilitate the work of strategy creation that must go on before you begin strategic planning.

This is going to be the differentiator of the next half decade or so. Which organizations can follow the arc of history and get “everybody, every day” to feel accountable for the generation of ideas and contribution to a well-thought-out future strategy and execution on that strategy? Those organizations are going to be the ones to lead us into the next decade and beyond. They will become the sought-after employers and their facilitators will be the much-sought-after leaders of the future.

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