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  • Writer's pictureAmy

QC #5: 3 Steps to Help Employees Solve Problems

Employees solve problems

Think of some of the problems your company faced last year. Who solved them? You might think it was the CEO, CFO, or VP, but it was probably an employee close to the problem or a group of employees working in concert to fix an issue. Leadership often publicize the fix and some even name the people who came up with the solution but, at the end of the day, leadership rarely “comes up” with the solution.

There are three steps you can take to help your employees fix issues before they become major problems.

Encourage Job “Ownership”

High levels of job ownership stem from a combination of more autonomy and deeper task identity. Check out the Forbes article Motivating Employees Has Everything To Do With Giving Them Feelings of Ownership for a more in-depth description. As autonomy increases, people feel more trusted to do the right thing and a deeper task identity helps employees connect their “piece of the pie” to the overarching business strategy. There was an earlier blog (QC#4: Lead Your Team From the Front) that spoke specifically to helping employees understand their impact on the health of the company.

For those of us who have had more than one job or manager, it is easy to see how changes in autonomy and task identity affect our job ownership. Raise your hand if you have gone from one job or manager with high autonomy to one with low autonomy. How did you feel about the change? Give me a “THAT’S RIGHT” if you have moved from a position where you felt like a cog in the machine to a position where you understood how each person fit into the mission of the office or company.

Help employees make the move from ‘collecting a check’ to ‘owning their job’. A word of caution though. It is difficult for employees to make the change if they have worked under low autonomy for a long time. Having more autonomy can be quite scary and confusing. It will take this group 4-12 months to adjust to the new culture and there are typically a lot of missteps along the way. Be flexible and patient but don’t stop the train! I implemented additional monitoring controls and spent a little more time making sure everyone was on the same page.

Why is job ownership essential for problem solving? Because employees at all levels will begin to identify problems at their earliest stages and either fix it or bring it to the attention of management. Early identification is the key. Home owners will fix a leaky pipe as soon as they see it because they know it will cause great damage if they leave it for someone else to find. Job ownership follows the same principle.

Integrate Front Line Staff in Brainstorming Sessions

Integrate front line staff (i.e., production, marketing, inventory control, etc.) into brainstorming sessions. Use a variety of methods to drill down to root causes. The “5 Why’s” is one way to dig past proximal causes to the real problem. Encourage everyone in these groups to keep an open mind during the brainstorming portion. Even the most outrageous suggestions may lead someone to a viable solution.

Create cause and effect charts and stratify the risk for each course of action. Risk stratification can be as simple as asking two questions and then marking it in a graph like the one here.

  1. How likely is this expected to happen?

  2. What is the expected damage or impact?

Your employees will have greater buy-in if they are part of the brainstorming and resolution teams. You can also leverage these people as your “cheerleaders” during the change management phase. This is the second reason you want a diverse group in your brainstorming sessions. Each office or function now has someone who has “drunk the Kool-Aid” of your change management plan.

Establish a Process for Employees to Share Ideas

I worked for Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH) for a while. They have this awesome process for training employees to identify business opportunities and creating an actionable business plan. BAH has teams to work the Project Work Statement, cost estimate, contract proposal, etc. Employees are not inhibited by the enormity of generating business because they know they are not responsible for spearheading the whole process.

Contrast this with other businesses that expect you to generate business leads but give you no standard process with which to work. It is still possible to build a business in this construct but it isn’t optimal. Why would a business intentionally hobble the people tasked with growing customers? The answer is simple. Leadership doesn’t realize that their customer acquisition system is broken, non-existent, or not effectively communicated.

One way to see if your employees know the process is to directly ask your front line staff about the process. Skip your managers and front line supervisors because they probably know the process. These aren’t the people who have the capacity to solve most of your problems (see the first step in this blog). The next time you find yourself around your lower level employees, take a moment to ask how they pitch ideas or alert management to sticky problems. Make sure they know where the suggestion box (or virtual suggestion box) is located.

Our comptroller does a walk-through every once in a while and asks my staff about new initiatives, etc. I cringe each and every time because I wonder if I have communicated his intentions and processes correctly. However, he is simply making sure that our offices run as efficiently and effectively as possible. He is modeling good management habits for the rest of us.

I’m sure I have missed a number of ways to help employees solve problems. What do you do to help people solve problems?

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