July 10


How to transform frustrations into solutions

As business owners and managers, we all have frustrations.

Too many defective parts. Employees who are habitually late. Too many customer complaints. And many more.

When we see these problems, we take steps to fix them. All too often, though, we treat the symptoms and not the cause.

The result?

Our fixes are short-lived. Then we find ourselves more frustrated and looking for another fix.

There is a way out of this game of whack-a-mole.

In this article, I’m going to outline a process for creating lasting solutions to the frustrations in your business.

But first, I want to talk about two important shifts in perspective. These shifts in your thinking are required prerequisites to implementing effective changes.

Focus on context, not content

Another way to say this is to treat the disease, not the symptom.

When we see an issue in the business, it is natural to jump in and go after the thing right in front of us. We may be successful in creating a short-term fix.  But the problem will inevitably reappear because the underlying cause has not been addressed.

It is harder to see context than to see content. That’s why most people only address the content. Understanding the context that causes an issue requires a willingness to look deeper. It requires a willingness to face uncomfortable truths about ourselves or our business.

If you have been dealing with versions of the same problem for years, it is because you have not addressed the underlying context.

This change of mindset is about stepping back to see the forest, not just the trees. It is the only way you will be able to realize real transformation.

Blame & Responsibility

The other mindset that needs to change is how you assign blame and responsibility for problems.

Too often, blame is handed down from the top when something goes wrong. This practice creates a culture where failure is to be avoided at all costs. It creates a culture where employees understand they will be punished when something goes wrong. This leads to people being more concerned with covering their ass instead of doing what is needed.

What you need is a culture where mistakes are an opportunity to learn and grow. That can only happen if employees believe that you support them, especially when they are wrong.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting at all you shouldn’t hold people responsible for what they do (or don’t do). I’m saying you need to hold people accountable in productive way. That means looking at why someone did what they did and what missing or broken systems contributed to the problem.

The three types of frustrations

We can look at frustrations in three different ways.

  1. Self-directed: You consider yourself to be the major source of the problem. You blame yourself, or at least hold yourself responsible.
  2. Outer-directed: You believe that someone or something else is the cause of the problem. You hold someone else or some external condition responsible.
  3. System-directed: Your systems and processes, or lack thereof, are the source of the problem. There is no blame or responsibility, just a statement of a frustrating condition.

Issues in your business are often a combination of all three types of frustrations. It is important to explore all your frustrations from each of these perspectives. You will find that inner-directed and outer-directed frustrations are often system-directed frustrations in disguise.

How to transform your frustrations into solutions

Here are the steps to identify the root cause of a problem and craft a system-based solution.

1. Identify one frustration. 

It may sound obvious, but the first thing you need to do is identify what the issue is. And that it is only one frustration. Write it down as simply as you can. Do not try to come up with a solution at this point. And don’t presume to know what the solution is.

2. Explore contributions and restate it as a system-based frustration.

Write down how you believe you and/or others contribute to the problem. Here is where you explore the inner-directed and outer-directed aspects of the issue. State clearly what result is not being achieved.

When you finish this step, you should be able to write the frustration like this.

“There is no system to ensure [the result]”

3. Determine the underlying cause.

Ask probing questions to uncover the root of the problem. One of the most effective ways to do this is the famous Toyota “5 whys” method.

When you first state the issue, ask why it is happening.

When you answer that “why” question. Ask why again.

Repeat this process until you reach the real root cause of the problem. Getting to the root cause of an issue is critical for creating a lasting, effective solution.

4. Quantify the condition to understand the magnitude of the problem.

Put numbers to the problem so you understand what it is costing you. You want actual numbers whenever possible. Rely on estimates only if you must.

Some of the measures you’ll want to explore are:

  • How many
  • How often
  • What percentage
  • How much does it cost

The estimate of the scale of the problem will tell you how urgently it needs to be addressed.

5. Identify a generic system solution

Steps 1 through 4 are all about getting to a clear understanding of the condition you want to remedy. Once you’ve done that, a general solution usually becomes obvious.

The key is to be clear about the result you want and how it is linked to the underlying condition that caused the problem.

You can write it out using this format:

“The solution is to implement a system that will [the result you want], while it addresses [the underlying issue that caused the problem].”

6. Decide how committed you are to solving the problem

Say what? I just did all this work, and now you tell me to decide if I actually want to fix the problem!?

That’s right.

It’s easy use this process to blast away every frustration in your business. But if you try to do that, you’ll be spending all your time creating new systems.

You need to be more strategic about it.

Think about your priorities for this quarter or for this year. Does fixing this problem help you achieve them?

Also, ask yourself how difficult or expensive it will be to implement a system to fix the problem. Will it cost more in time and money than fixing it will save?

This is where the quantification from step 4 will help you. Those numbers can help you decide which frustrations need to be addressed, which can deferred, and which you can just live with.

7. Create the system solution

This is where you (or your employees) create a new process (or modify an existing one) that will reliably produce the desired result and eliminate the underlying cause.

The key is to specify the result, the steps, and the standards that are to be followed by anyone performing the task.

Come back next week for an in-depth discussion of how to do this.

8. Implement the solution

None of the previous work matters if you don’t implement it in your business.

You will need to make sure the people responsible for executing the system understand how to do it and why they are doing it.

Observe the results and adjust the process as needed until it is working smoothly.

Think differently

More than anything, the process I just outlined is about thinking differently about problems and how to solve them. If you can make this type of thinking a habit for you and your employees, you will have made a significant change to the business.

It is a tool that can change the culture by empowering employees to take ownership of issues and solutions. A culture where people feel empowered and valuable is good for them, and it’s good for you.

Give this process a try and let me know how it goes.


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