Problems Present An Opportunity To Learn What Works(And What Does Not)
“The illiterate of the 21st century, will not be those who can read or write. They will be those who cannot learn, un-learn and re-learn” – Alain Tofle
Our ability to improve on any area of endeavour we embark upon is greatly dependent on how well we learn from previous experiences, towards modifying our knowledge, in preparation for future attempts at solving similar – or different – problems.
Basically, in order to solve a problem in any part of life – personal or business – it is important to first achieve a sound understanding of the problem. That is what a Formal Problem Solving system or tool can help an individual or organisation achieve – in order to be able to decide on actions that can be taken to make it work.
The American military, according to a weekly electronic newsletter on “Management and Strategy”(published by Zooba.com on Wednesday 6th June 2001) developed a process – in the mid-70s – that enabled them actively improve their ability – as a “learning organisation” – to successfully tackle the various problems their teams faced in the carrying out their duties. This “assessment and evaluation” process was called “After Action Review”(AAR)
Basically, the AAR process involves four self-questioning steps that those involved in and/or responsible for the process or operation under review have to undertake. It normally would occur in a meeting that holds immediately after the activity (while it is all still fresh on everyone’s minds). This ensures the best results are achieved.
The four questions those in the meeting have to answer are:
1. What did we set out to do?
2. What actually happened?
3. Why did it happen?
4. What are we going to do next time?
The Zooba.com newsletter gave an interesting account of how the AAR was successfully applied described an incident that occurred during the UN-backed US military invasion of Haiti, to return power to the country’s constitutional government. A military unit was dispatched to small town surrounding Port-au-Prince to collect guns from suspected rebel hideouts located there. The first round of searches did not lead to many recovered guns due to unwillingness of the residents to allow soldiers into their home and the soldier had instructions not to force their way in.
The subsequent AAR led to a revelation that most of the locals were afraid of the German Shepherd dogs that rear-guard military units employed in their work. The dogs were therefore introduced at the next town where searches for guns had to be done, with the result that little or no resistance was encountered from the locals.
As a Best Practice Process Management departmental champion in a large manufacturing organisation, I was actively involved in developing sustainable solutions to a number of nagging process problems via Formal Problem Solving techniques that entailed the use of tools like the Japanese Ishikawa(Fish-Bone) diagram and the Five(5) Why Questioning technique.
One very obvious benefit of employees involvement in the various Continuous Improvement Groups, was that we all over time achieved dramatic improvements in our knowledge of what took place in various stages of the manufacturing process. The result was that we understood the process better, and therefore found it easier to solve problems that occurred faster. We also became more comfortable teaching new entrants how to run the process, and what important things to look out for in order to ensure sustained output.
Experience sharing, ideas exchange and other collaborative activities are also facilitated when a multidisciplinary group of people is formally assembled to tackle problems, using the techniques being discussed here. Ideas that have been used successfully in one area, could be easily adapted for use in resolving a nagging problem in an entirely different area.
Formal Problem Solving techniques help to quickly extract the most relevant information regarding the cause of a problem being experienced, and also facilitates development of appropriate alternative approaches/solutions towards achieving the desired goals. One major reason why they are so effective is that the ideas generated and solutions developed get formally documented for future reference by operatives. That way, whatever the organisation discoversabout what works or does not work in any area, is always made accessible for use by all those who have to perform relevant tasks towards achieving the ultimate goal of the enterprise.
How Can You Use This Information
You can start by seeing problems as opportunities to learn MORE about how to do what you do better, and ultimately become BETTER in doing it by taking needed action. Problem-Solving is a challenge that every individual or organisation has to deal with successfully on a fairly regular basis, in order to make any meaningful progress. It therefore means you need to have in place, a system that enables you to effectively develop appropriate solutions or strategies to tackle problems in whatever shape or form they appear, so you can record more frequent successes.
1.As An individual, you can take yourself through the four AAR questions highlighted above, whenever you encounter a problem or setback in your personal or work life as a deliberate routine designed to enable you get the most out of every experience you have. It really does not matter if you feel the experience was negative or positive. What is most crucial is that you extract from it an equivalent positive learning that you can use to further your objective.
Incidentally, in a separate article titled “How To Turn A Major Blunder At Work Into A Career Advancement Opportunity” I described a formula(W x R to the power of 3 i.e. Withdraw, Reflect, Refocus and Return) that I developed for my personal use, based on application of similar deductive reasoning to that used in techniques featured in this article. By implication, nothing is cast in stone when it comes to finding what works for you. So feel free to find what does. 🙂
2. As an organisational decision maker, leader or business owner, you could deliberately introduce the use of the techniques mentioned here in the work place routines of your teams, or challenge individual employees to apply them while at work or on duty.
Your Guaranteed Minimum Benefit: More Useful Knowledge That Enhances Performance
Your team members will become more knowledgeable about how the various operations or processes they handle work. They will also be more capable as a result of that knowledge, since they will know (more frequently than before) what they can do to successfully tackle problems when they appear. This will happen most especially because the AARs, like most formal problem solving techniques allow an organisation bring all those with unique knowledge about the problem or process/operation together in one place, to generate a solution(s) towards resolving the problem(s) – permanently.
For new entrants to the organisation, they will take much shorter times to become familiar with what could go wrong and how to deal with it, since the documented lessons from previous formal problem solving sessions would be accessible – or possibly even deliberately made required reading for their induction and entry training.
The most important benefit will however be the organisation wide understanding that problems are not about “Who did it” but “what happened and what can be done to stop it from happening next time” so that the organisation can progress faster towards its goal. This practical perspective, and its consequent non-threatening implications, will make members of an organisation more willing to contribute to the process of improving existing systems by readily saying what they did, exactly as they did it(so that correct inferences can be made), without fear of reprisal. The foregoing will facilitate accurate problem diagnosis and solutions development.
Successful Organisational Problem Solving Will ONLY Happen When People Are NOT Afraid
The AAR – and other successful formal problem solving processes, operate based on an assumption that all those who partake in a review will give a truthful and accurate representation of events and occurrences that led to the problem. If people are not CONVINCED it is safe to do this, a lot of inaccuracies will enter the process, evidence of this showing eventually up in ineffective solutions that will be derived.
Let me therefore emphasise that if you plan to adopt this strategy of using formal problem solving techniques to quickly and more effectively LEARN how to deal successfully with problems in your organisation, you must be prepared to demonstrate to your people that providing full details of their roles in the run up to the problem will NOT lead to reprisals – even if they were at fault, though with the proviso that such mistakes do not become habitual.
If that simple yet potentially limiting aspect can be taken care of, your efforts to use formal problem solving techniques to improve learning in your organisation, will yield substantial and sustainable benefits – especially by enabling your teams to effectively tackle problems that threaten to limit the organisation’s progress.