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Isn’t the obsession with problem solving unnecessarily negative and depressing?

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Dear Gemba Coach,  

Isn’t the obsession with problem solving unnecessarily negative and depressing?

Of course, it’s negative – that’s the point. Whether it’s depressing or, on the other hand, encouraging depends on the attitude to problem solving. To start with, why is negativity necessary?

Negative events impress us far more than positive ones. Our brains are hard-wired to give more importance to negative aspects than positive, and that makes evolutionary sense. The primate worried about not eating berries that make you ill is likely to have better survival chances than the one keen on eating all the attractive tasty food they see. In fact, not only do negative events impress us more, but they also motivate us more – motivate as in move to action. Psychologist Antonio Damasio captures this well in what I often call Damasio’s first law of human behavior:

Dissatisfaction > Negotiation > Monitoring

Satisfaction leaves us happily in our comfort zone, but dissatisfaction stretches us, makes us get off our butts and, well, do something. As we’re social creatures, our natural first step is to renegotiate the situation – we complain to someone, and ask for redress. In the vast majority of cases, the problem is solved easily, such as buying a sandwich: our dissatisfaction with feeling hungry gets resolved by a quick transaction at the bakery. But on occasion, we hit snags in this negotiation and when things don’t run smoothly we monitor carefully how events unfold, working towards a resolution. Too much dissatisfaction and we fall from stretch into the panic zone. Management’s ability to create a safe environment for teams ... will make the difference between problems first being fun rather than depressing.

Because we’re much cleverer than our primate forebears, this process easily becomes complex – and confusing. Dissatisfaction with a situation can suddenly crystallize on a specific or a detail that becomes unbearable, triggering unexpected chains of events. The negotiation process is rarely direct and rational, often leading to tangled emotional messes as we negotiate with the wrong person the wrong way. Finally, when things don’t go our way, our focus tends to slip from monitoring how well we’re doing with the original issue to monitoring the negotiation process itself: are we being heard? Do we get any respect? How upset are we with everyone involved?

Lean practice funnels these instinctive impulses:

  1. Dissatisfaction topics are defined, and signposted by visual management;
  2. The negotiation process is structured through problem solving tools and nemawashi;
  3. Monitoring is explicitly stressed in the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) change-management process.

Ready for Trouble

On the Gemba with the leadership team of Theodo and BAM, digital companies that design apps for mobiles, all you can see are devs hunched over their laptops. It all looks quiet, but the CEO knows that fires can flare up unexpectedly anywhere as a customer, team, or developer run into trouble. By that time, it’s often too late to do anything else than fire-fighting. Lean thinking, on the other hand, leads us to visualize:

  • Product architecture as it relates to customer performance: How the product is designed, what functionalities providing what services with what technologies and where do we discover snags ahead of time?
  • Code flows and backflows: How the code flows from dev environment to testing and then production – where are the batches, how are the tickets handled, where are the main rework issues?
  • Bugs and overburden issues: Where do teams struggle with bugs and/or overburden when some bits of code turn out much harder to design or to fix than was previously expected?

Visualizing these control points allows for surfacing issues early and keeping an eye on the mood of the team through how well they handle obstacles and help each other with difficulties. This doesn’t solve anything in itself, but channels dissatisfactions to causes than can be fixed.

Similarly, lean’s formal problem-solving process is, in fact, a negotiation process where everyone can understand where we come from and where we’re going:

  1. What is the problem in context, and what gain are we looking for?
  2. What are the analysis and the causes of the present situation?
  3. What is the main proposed change?
  4. How is this change going to be implemented and its impact monitored?
  5. What deeper lesson can we draw from this problem-solving exercise?
  6. By being formally written up and passed around in a process of nemawashi (gathering support for the proposed change), negotiating the problem allows for cooler and smarter resolution than complaining angrily and imposing one’s pet solution.

Finally, the PDCA process explicitly stresses checking on the impact of changes before drawing an adapt, adopt, abandon conclusion. The monitoring process is formalized as well by choosing what we need to monitor beforehand, making the entire process smoother.

Obsessing with problem solving, as you say, is very clever because this is what we do in any case. Formalizing the intuitive process is a great help to keeping tempers down and reaching smarter, collective solutions. Is this depressing? Well, that depends.

Stress is essentially caused by the perceived gap between the perceived difficulty of the challenges one faces (I’ll never make it!) and our perceived ability to overcome these challenges (I’ve never been any good at that). We all have our weird individual neurosis – I, for one, struggle with opening my mail (I watch the pile grow and feel I’ll never make it) and then remember how painful it is to actually open and file each letter (I’ve always hated this), so I’m unreasonably, neurotically stressed by mail. Oddly, e-mail is no challenge.

What makes opening letters so stressful is that it feels unsafe. In this day and age, all I get through the mail are bills and marketing junk (also designed to guilt or stress you), so they are scary. E-mail, on the other hand, is mostly professional conversations and as I’m very lucky in largely working with people I like and respect, exchanges are positive and problems fun to solve. It’s safe.

On the one hand, practicing problem solving daily increases one’s perceived ability to deal with any challenge – as you learn that all problems are solvable. But we still must deal with the perceived difficulty of the challenge.

What Makes problem solving Fun

Psychological safety is slowly emerging in the business literature as a key prerequisite to engagement, something lean systems have known early on. The earliest paper written on TPS in 1977 describes the system as two pillars: just-in-time (including jidoka) and respect-for-humans which was then stressed as (1) elimination of waste movement by workers, (2) consideration for worker’s’ safety and (3) self-display of workers capabilities by entrusting them with greater responsibility and authority – in other words emphasizing physical and moral safety.

Management’s ability to create a safe environment for teams -- asking for bad news first; being tough on the problem, soft on the person; being fair in taking positions in conflicts and understanding that the underdog needs support; and being skillful in dealing with negative attitudes and “bad apples” -- will make the difference between problems first being fun rather than depressing. This is why Toyota wrote the Toyota Way (continuous improvement and respect for people) to complement the Toyota Production System.

Any method is just a method, it all depends on the attitude managers start with: inclusive (creating the conditions for people to grow and progress and recognize their contributions) or, conversely, extractive (using tools to pressure them, keep them in their place and steal their results). Yet, the fact remains that negative holds much greater power on us than positive and that is not a bug, it’s a feature. Lean builds from that and turns this fundamental twist in how people think into a process of finding problems, facing challenges, framing issues and forming solutions together, which, I feel, is encouraging and exciting. Surely, that’s a positive?

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