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SUCCESS STRATEGIES: Solving Problems-the Right Way

November 1, 2006
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In my last column (August 2006), I discussed the importance of change in business. Adapting your business in order to solve problems is a vital part of becoming (and remaining) successful. Every business has problems, and the best businesses are constantly in a problem-solving mode. But how should problems be solved? First, ask your employees what problems they encounter while doing their jobs. Once a problem has been identified, start an action team.

When companies try to solve problems, they have to decide how to tap the right information, how to develop solution options, and how to implement the selected solution. Action teams are a structured method of this problem-solving process. If you truly want to change your company, then you should adopt the action team concept-it will give you a base to solve problems and improve systems for many years to come.

Creating a Team

An action team should be created to solve one particular problem. The team's focus is to offer solutions to the problem, and then to implement the best solution(s). Action teams normally meet for four to six weeks, and should concentrate specifically on just the problem for which they are assigned. Meetings should be held once a week, and should be limited to one hour. At the end of each meeting, if needed, assignments should be given to team members to complete before the next meeting. This keeps everyone on the team involved in improving the company.

A team normally consists of four to six people. Each team member should have some stake in the assigned problem, but it can be peripheral. For example, if the problem happens to deal with inventory, you may have people from shipping, manufacturing, inventory management, purchasing and accounting among the team members, since they each deal with the inventory in one way or another. What you do not want is a team entirely made up of the responsible department, in this case inventory management.

Team members should come from a variety of levels within the company-not just management. During team activities, all team members should be considered on the same level, rather than their level in the company outside the team. While members should have no rank on the team, particular roles are important and should be selected by the team at the initial meeting. First is the team leader, who must keep the meetings moving forward and make sure that all members are involved. "War stories" should not be allowed to dominate the meeting; the team leader must keep the focus on looking forward rather than rehashing problems after they have been clearly identified.

The team leader must also be ready to step in and hold other team members accountable for their performance when required. The person selected as team leader should have a history in the company where he or she has shown a better-than-average effort in doing their job effectively and productively.

The next role in the team that must be defined is the scribe, who is responsible for capturing the information that is brought out during the meeting, and, in particular, noting the assignments that team members are given during the meeting. These written minutes, with assignments, should be distributed to each member of the team within one day of the meeting so everyone knows their responsibilities for that week.

Taking Action

To start the problem-solving process, first select a problem. Carefully word the "Problem to be Improved" so that there is a clear understanding of the expected results of the action team. When selecting a place for the action team meeting, keep in mind that the meetings need to be of a serious nature. Try to select a location with no distractions that will lend itself to a formal, structured meeting. A place with a marker board is also helpful.

When possible, the action team should be scheduled as a standard four-week process (on projects that require longer time, the majority of the time will go toward the second and third bullet points):

  • Week one-focus on developing a clear definition of the problem and researching the issues and related data. This may include analyzing cost items and looking at different possibilities.
  • Week two-review the issues and data, identify new or modified procedures, and identify updates or changes required to reporting systems (you want to track how the changes are affecting the business, so you'll need to establish some kind of measure to monitor).
  • Week three-finalize the new procedures through group interaction.
  • Week four-finalize a draft of all procedures, as well as an implementation plan.

Team members should be briefed on the importance of their assistance on the action team, noting that the team is just as important, if not more so, than their normal responsibilities. Hold the meetings during work hours so the employees understand that the company is willing to pay them to do this important task. The result should be a new standard operating procedure, as well as training on how to use the new process that the action team has created.

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