When a solution does everything except solving the problem.

Some professionals fail to solve a problem even if the solution is straightforward and known. On the contrary, they end up developing a whole Eco-system around the problem which keeps the problem alive.

Let’s check out this small story first to understand this phenomenon-

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 the already narrow road. Finally the road side assistance team was able to get the car removed, however, it did not take 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 with the travelers, victims and few other 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 of the existence of the open manhole and this should stop these events from happening. The 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.”

The 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 for the subject. He ran his presentation and explained how the complains were being made by just a 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 incidents of any bike casualty.

Getting such a high improvement percentage 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 complain 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 a 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 to 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 was shown by the Project Manager Larry. Also, with time daily commuters were used to of the whole arrangement, so there were very few complaints about it. Finally, everyone was happy, management committee with the data, PM with the project, and the commuters with the preventive measures.

Only the poor manhole was not happy 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 which gives an impression that problem is being solved, but in reality, the lid never gets closed.

Few most common symptoms to identify these solutions are –

1. Creates dependency —

You will notice that these solutions (sign boards/security guards/audit trips) have one thing in common, there is no end date for these activities. These are 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.

2. Too many people doing few jobs —

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.

They are stuck in an endless loop of existing work which consumes a big percentage of their productive hours, therefore they are not available to face new challenges. This causes inefficiency in work execution resulting in too many people accomplishing too few jobs.

The most common reasons for this kind of situation are –

1. No Immediate Solution —

Depending on the circumstances sometimes an immediate solution may not be possible. Thus the best possible option may be to buy time by implementing some intermediate work around. Such as Larry may have placed an order for a new lid, but while the order is fulfilled, he may use sign-boards to keep the accidents under check. However this is a temporary situation which goes away as soon as the real solution is deployed.

2. A Quick Fix Culture –

Some teams develop a culture of applying quick fixes to everything rather than a permanent solution. A real solution requires – An in-depth understanding of the problem and development of a flexible and robust solution.

A quick fix culture may arise due to lack of focus on long-term goals, an unreasonable time estimation or just a bad decision-making process. In either case, a company must seek the change in the approach of the team and identify what is causing this culture.

3. Missing Quality Checks –

How Larry’s solutions were accepted as a solution. Why no one in the Managing Committee checked and verified the quality of these proposals. A team requires strong quality check practices at different stages, especially before a deliverable reaches the end user. Someone needs to ensure that problems are being solved rather than being covered up.

4. Less Focus on Problem Solving –

Sometimes professionals start to believe their job is just to execute the work and lose focus of the problem they are trying to solve.

As I always say to a Software Development team, their job is not to write code, their job is to provide solutions. The solution may just require an explanation of the scenario, it may require an enhancement in the current application, it may require a new software. But the goal always remains the same, the team should be able to solve the customer’s pain area.

Some real world examples –

1) A Project Manager used to complain about the 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 improve or goes away from the project. The company had a well-defined process to deal with non-performing team members and Manager 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 respective developer. This means, 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. The manager used to use this excuse to justify his project delays and quality issues while keeping the focus away from his bad management practices. This was his way of keeping the team issues alive to create dependency and justify failures.

Tip:- A good manager with a bad team is a myth, a manager is as good as his/her team. So if a manager cries 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 daily on the client’s servers and the other on a local system by end of every week. Project manager only had access to the local copy of the time-sheet.

At the end of the month, Project Manager would send the local copy to the Accounts department for the billing purposes. The problem was that these two time-sheets must match at the end of the month, but Project Manager did not have a way to check client’s time-sheet. So it was pretty common that Accounts department who had access to both the time-sheets, would send the local time-sheet back to the project manager because two won’t 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 sent 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 extent.

But did you notice how lid was still kept open? The project manager could have asked the client to provide access to their time-sheet the same way access was given to the accounting team. Or ask the client to setup an automated weekly report for team’s time-sheet data. This would have eliminated 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 on his plate.

Tip:- If a solution requires repetitive human involvement (such as 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 is welcome.

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