When a solution does everything except solving the problem.

Sometimes, a Manager would not solve a problem even if the solution is straight forward and known. In fact they would try their best to keep the problem unsolved. Check out this small story first to understand this behavior, and then we will discuss the reasons behind it –

On a busy road one of the manhole lids got stolen. First the few early travelers noticed that. Since it was a busy market road, soon everyone coming to the market started experiencing the problem. By noon one car got his wheels stuck in the manhole, which caused a big traffic jam in already narrow road. Finally the road side assistance team was able to get the car removed, however it did not took long enough before another car was stuck in the same manhole.

By end of the week, 4 cars got their wheels and axles broken. By end of the month total 30 cars had the same fate, also 4 bikes reported to have fallen in the open manhole causing major chaos on the road.

City’s municipal committee was known for its inefficiency and slow response time, so people of the neighborhood knew that it can take sometime before the lid is replaced. However shopkeepers of the market were doing their bit, by reporting every incident to the municipality office, and demanding that they take some action to cover the lid.

Finally managing committee of the municipality decided to take some action to solve the problem and show that they were not as inefficient as they were advertised. Managing committee hired and appointed an experienced project manager called Larry. Project manager Larry was briefed about the issue and was asked to take the necessary actions to fix the problem.

As a good project manager Larry decided to visit the place himself to analyze the problem first. He spent his whole day in the market trying to see what all chaos was being caused by this open manhole lid. He also conducted interviews of the travelers, victims and few eye witnesses in the market. After his initial analysis of the problem was done, he submitted his report with proposed action items to the managing committee.

In his report, he mentioned that the open manhole was causing problems because people coming to market were not able to notice the open manhole in the busy market and they were driving their cars directly into the hole instead of avoiding it. Same was happening with people riding bikes, they were so busy looking around the busy road that they were not able to notice a wide open hole on the side of the road.

So Larry proposed that they should install a couple of sign boards to make people aware about the existence of the open manhole and this should stop these events from happening. Managing committee showed full confidence in their project manager and they approved the recommendations without any questioning. In reality none of the managing committee members actually read through the 50 pages long report, they just noticed there was a solution suggested in the report and they jumped to approve it.

Once Larry got the approval, he immediately contacted the sourcing department and got two sign boards installed in the market.

First one saying —

“Attention ! Open Manhole 1 mile ahead.”

Second board was installed 300 meters away from the manhole —

“Please change the lane, open manhole 300 meters ahead!!”

Daily commuters were outraged by the stupidity of the solution. They could not believe, instead of closing the lid, municipality got the sign boards installed. So they complained again and demanded to solve the problem.

Managing committee was also surprised by this, as they were expecting to get some positive feedback after installing sign boards. So they called an urgent meeting to address the situation and Larry was asked to explain what was happening.

Like a good manager, Larry was well prepared with the subject. He ran his presentation and explained how the complains were being made by just few grumpy commuters as the solution installed by him was actually working well. He backed his arguments by data, there were 4 bike and 30 car incidents reported in the first month, however after the sign boards were installed only 5 car incidents were reported in first two weeks. This was a direct 67% reduction in the total number of car incidents. Also there were zero reported incident of any bike casualty.

Getting such a high improvement percentages in a time span of only 2 weeks was quite impressive and everyone welcomed Larry with a round of applause.

“Well, we are definitely making a progress. And these complains seems to be made by some people who are never happy with anything” — someone made a comment in the meeting. Other members also agreed to this and felt that Larry was very serious about solving the problem and he was doing a good job. However they still asked Larry to see if these numbers of accidents can go lower. Larry promised to do his best to improve the situation and a followup meeting was planned after a month to check the progress.

Larry took matters very seriously and decided to do one more round of Root cause analysis. He again spent next few days talking to drivers, bikers, pedestrians and also in observing how people were behaving on that stretch of road after sign boards were installed.

Larry again created a report about his findings and proposed few more steps to resolve this issue thoroughly. This time the report mentioned that, still few people were refusing to change the lane and were being ignorant enough to drive into the open manhole. Additionally after initial few weeks, one of the sign boards was vandalized and gone missing which caused spike in the incidents. So Larry’s proposed solution was to appoint two security guards, at the ground zero. They would ensure that sign boards are not stolen and also everyone changes the lane before reaching the open hole. Larry would also be doing audits of the whole system twice a month and will maintain logs of his findings.

Management committee had no reason to object on the proposed solutions, so pretty soon there were two security guards in the market. After a month Larry was ready for the followup meeting with the committee. This time the data was even better, the total incidents dropped from 10 accidents a month to 1 incident in the whole month.

A 90% reduction in the accidents after last month, and 97% reduction from the original incident rate. An impressive improvement shown by the Project Manager Larry. Also, with time daily commuters were used to of the whole arrangement, so there were very few complains about it. Finally everyone was happy, management with the data, PM with the project, commuters with the preventive measures.

The only thing which was not happy was the manhole, because the lid was still open.

Who is Larry –

Larry represents a group of professionals who believe in developing an eco-system around a problem by not solving it. They work on the symptoms of the problem to showcase that they are solving it, but in reality lid is never closed.

Few most common reasons for this kind of work style are –

1. There is no immediate solution —

Sometimes a PM may not have an actual solution to the problem. So like an incurable disease, it may be required to take care of the symptoms in the interim, till an actual solution is available. Such as Larry may have placed an order for a new Lid, but while order is fulfilled, he may have used these techniques to keep the accidents under check. This may be a genuine requirement of the situation.

2. Creating dependency —

You will notice that these solutions (sign boards/security guards/audit trips) have one thing in common, there is no end date to these activities. These are called dependency creating solutions, where some needs to be occupied always on these activities. These processes can not be automated and can not be run without someone managing it.

3. Justifying the job —

These are the professionals who are always busy with work and always complaining about the work. But if you will notice they are complaining about the same work every week, every month. So they are not doing anything new, they are not available to face new challenges and move ahead. They have created an endless loop of existing work. Which means if you would like them to be involved in some new project, it can be in addition to what they are doing, but they are never free to work on a new thing because their old work is never over.

Real world examples –

These examples are some real world examples taken directly from software development companies –

1) A Project Manager used to complain about bad performance of a development team member in every meeting, but he would do everything to make sure that the bad performer Developer would never improves or goes away from the project. Company had a well defined process to deal with non-performing team members and Manager’s had authority to ask for a replacement if an employees performance does not match the expectations. Even though this manager cribbed about bad performance of this developer in front of his managers, he never provided this feedback to the Developer. This meant this Manager would neither give a genuine chance to this so call bad performer to improve, nor would he reported this to HR to get a more suitable resource for the project. Manager used to use this excuse to justify his delays and mistakes and keep the focus away from his bad management practices. This is the trick of keeping the team issues alive to create dependency.

Tip:- A good manager with a bad team is a myth, a manager is as good as his/her team. So if a manager continues to cry about a bad team after every mistake, check what steps have been taken to close the lid and prevent the same mistake from happening .

2) An Offshore team needed to fill two time-sheets every month. One on the daily basis on clients servers and the other on the weekly basis on a local system. At the end of the month Project Manager would send the local copy to the Account Receivable for billing purposes. The problem was that these two time-sheets must match at the end of the month, but Project Manager did not have access right to check client’s timesheet, only accounting team had access to both the timesheets. So it was very common that Accounting would send the local timesheet back to project manager because for some team members their two time-sheets wont match.

The first step project manager took to resolve this issue was to ask everyone to share a screen-shot of client’s time-sheet every week, which he/she could match with their local time-sheet data. But soon not everyone was sending the email every week. So the next step taken by PM was to impose a fine of $5 every week for anyone who did not send the screen-shot (the money used to go in the team fund for parties and gifts). This allowed PM to go through all the screenshots send by his 10 team members and match the local copy of the time-sheet with client’s copy, which resolved the issue up to great extend.

But did you notice how lid was still kept open. Project manager could have asked client to provide access to their team’s timesheet the same way it was given to the accounting team. Or ask client to setup an automated weekly report for team’s timesheet data. This would have eliminating the whole need of team members filling the same data at two places, sending emails, giving fines and all the time PM was spending on matching this data. But PM decided to keep the repetitive activities in his plate to justify his job and to showcase how much busy he/she is.

Tip:- If a solution requires human involvement every week or every month, it is not a solution. Either automate the process or find a real solution, so the human hours can be used for intelligent work.

Do you also remember some similar events when someone was keeping the lid open, share it in the comments. Your feedback and comments are welcome.