IES 05.29.19

Briefing:  Wednesday,29 May 2019

Inside the Executive Suite

(Tips, Tricks, and Techniques used by the Nation’s top Executives… to get things done.)

Finding the Problems in What’s Happening

In business, you’re usually discovering problems and generating solutions in equal measure.

So it struck us as odd when an associate described a client engagement: his assignment was to conduct a cross-operation meeting focused solely on tracking down problems, leaving solutions for later.

Sure, problem finding is generally critical in business improvement. It deserves time to approach it constructively and thoroughly. By eliminating the positive, solution-development side of the process, though, it seemed to our associate that the meeting would quickly become a negative environment.

We asked him to share his ideas on how you can productively incorporate problem-identification into performance improvement efforts, and are now handing this Inside the Executive Suite over to him.

Let’s Do Painstorming

Our client’s chief innovation officer (CIO) mentioned painstorming workshops for months. Nothing ever went beyond talk. I figured that if one occurred, it would be like other innovation workshops we did, only with a different name and emphasis.

The first painstorming opportunity focused on a new operation that included multiple natural breakdown points:

  • Two companies partnering in a long-term provider-customer manufacturing operation
  • A production facility located in Mexico with language and cultural barriers
  • The Mexico leadership is new, yet there is a seasoned, US-based team still in the daily mix

In developing the workshop, I reviewed Painstorming and discovered it’s a real thing. (I’d thought the CIO had coined the term.) Instead, pain is an acronym for an innovation focus centered on:

  • People – The targets who will benefit from innovation
  • Activities – Things that the targeted individuals do that are ripe for innovation
  • Insights – Solutions to challenges and difficulties that people have created on their own
  • Needs – Unaddressed needs and other frustrations the target faces

These concepts make sense on their own, yet they had nothing to do with the client’s aspirations. He wanted a process-centric approach. His goal? Challenging team members’ blinders, complacency, and reluctance to push for dramatic improvements.

We reviewed our strategy exercises; very few focused exclusively on identifying problems. We focus on solutions. Even online searches showed very few techniques focused exclusively on figuring out problems.

What this Version of Painstorming Included

We used a pre-workshop outreach to seek out opportunities and pain points. We coupled that with several exercises during the in-person meeting to identify and prioritize more than 100 pain points.

Here are the techniques we used and how they performed:

  • Ask people about pain points individually

Problems are sensitive topics; they are ripe for team members’ defensiveness, reluctance to fully share, and a hesitancy to come across as negative. Because of this, we used online questions to solicit pain points and opportunities from both in-person participants and frontline employees, executives, and stakeholders. We created a Spanish version of the survey to increase participation from in-country employees.

Analyzing the text-based responses asking for personal perspectives instead of numerical ratings, we uncovered ninety pain points. The Spanish-language surveys revealed cultural and management problems that no other surveys mentioned. Executive responses highlighted disconnects in goal setting and expectations. Stakeholder comments revealed focus areas among the meeting participants. These responses shaped the workshop.

  • Invite People with Fresh Eyes

The client asked stakeholders to bring people from their areas who were uninvolved in creating and running the operation. The objective was to involve people with functional experience who were not clouded by direct participation. This was valuable, to the extent that stakeholders took advantage of the invitation.

  • Start with the Obvious

Identifying numerous pain points upfront, we prioritized each of them. They did this based on the potential impact of addressing a pain point versus the ability to make headway on it. We split the group in two. Each group performed the same prioritization exercise. While there were many agreement areas, differing perspectives fueled a full morning of discussion and reconciling the groups’ perspectives. This led to aligning many closely-related pain points. The net of it was settling on fifty problems to potentially tackle.

  • Explore the Situation Closely

We weren’t meeting at the actual facility. Because of this, our client took photos of the operation from the ground and from the sky via drone. He shared the photos plus a worksheet we developed for noting pain points based on:

  • Known problems
  • Clear or potential problems visible from the photos
  • Potential problems the group was wondering about

This exercise identified additional pain points, especially for participants who hadn’t recently been onsite.

  • Use an External Perspective

We incorporated external research on typical breaking points in manufacturing partnerships, plus well-performing, overlooked areas that can become vulnerabilities with other in-person exercises. While these yielded fewer new pain points, several significant ones emerged which had previously gone unmentioned.

  • Go Deeper and Document

After selecting three major issues and a dozen quick wins, the group completed 5-Whys exercises to probe for underlying issues (see the link for an explanation of the technique). Additionally, they completed assessments on each problem. This included a problem statement, expectations for what the solution would include, known barriers and constraints, and the people needed to address the issue.

What Didn’t Work?

Two things didn’t work well. Given the operation’s immaturity, there weren’t enough objective metrics to dive in and analyze. That led to more opinions and experience than quantitative data driving the agenda.

Secondly, I’d wanted to set a foundation of positive things happening and create a stronger cross-participant sense of the shared opportunity. This didn’t happen effectively. While we excelled at identifying problems, walking in and not knowing the people and dynamics upfront made focusing more on positive dynamics a real challenge.

ITES: If you are facing a turnaround with more problems than successes, focusing exclusively on identifying pain points may be a natural step. It’s manageable to do, but make sure you also recognize the wins and create a clear path toward fixing pain points.

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