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Practicing Constructive Discontent At SBP

by Zack Rosenburg
May 24, 2019

Practicing Constructive Discontent At SBP

by Zack Rosenburg
May 24, 2019 | Comments (1)

When we (Liz McCartney and I) first realized that sustaining continuous improvement in our work required us to become an organization of problem solvers, we also discovered that we were not thrilled with the phrase continuous improvement, which felt a bit like a hamster on a wheel. And so, with the input of our board member, former President of UPS Jerry Matters, we instead referred to this fundamental mindset of looking for problems to solve as constructive dissatisfaction.

We liked this term, except for the ‘dissatisfaction’ part. Like the leaders at UPS, we wanted our people to be in consistent pursuit of something better. Zack thought about Frederick Douglas writing, “Where there is no struggle, there is no progress.” He wanted to embrace the struggle—to encourage discontent—even while avoiding the sense that we were all rodents on wheels. So we arrived at constructive discontent to talk about problems and the search for improvement.

Constructive discontent because our ethos, woven into the fabric of our culture. We wanted it to become part of our identity. We had read in Switch, the business book about change by brothers Dan and Chip Heath, that the driver of decision making is not, as you would think, a rational choice assessment. Instead, what impels most decisions is identity. We ask ourselves, “What would a person like me do in a situation like this?”

To become an organization of problem solvers, talking about problems couldn’t merely be something that we did. It had to be part of who we are; it had to be our identity. Being or living constructive discontent and adopting it as our identity would mean that problems were brought to the surface, not buried. We began wrapping up meetings with the question, “Is there any constructive discontent to talk about?”

Sure, this is just a nice way of asking whether there are any problems to discuss. But the positive language turned out to be really important. Our people had found it difficult to stick up a hand and say they had noticed a problem. Partly this was due to the fact that the majority of our team members are time-limited AmeriCorps members; some of them probably felt intimidated. But we also had a lot of optimistic, helpful people on staff who did not like to criticize others and could fall into a pattern of heroically taking on problems alone.

Embracing an identity of constructive discontent took talking about problems from being optional to being a core part of who we are and how we interact with the world. We needed a way to hardwire addressing problems into our culture. We needed people to want to uncover and talk about difficulties, to seek out problems—like hunting wild nutria.


For those of you unacquainted with them, nutria are large semi-aquatic rodents that were once raised for their fur on an island off the coast of Louisiana. Then a hurricane smashed their fences and helped them spread to the mainland. Their status quickly changed from business asset to burrowing, destructive pests (a.k.a. river rats). They were everywhere, but people did not like to talk about them and nobody wanted their fur anymore. They were without value. The state, however, needed to address the issue of too many nutrias. So the state offered a bounty—cash money—for nutria tails. And the rodents became worthy of hunting.

The question is, how do we get people to hunt river rats—problems—without a bounty? The answer we found has two parts: 1) to make problem hunting part of the training and deliverable work of our Americorps members and staff and 2) adopt change on a personal level.

Let’s start with the easy part, which is teaching problem hunting to our Americorps members during their 10-month stint. This is a new idea for SBP and has only been implemented in New Orleans (to date), but we are excited about the results so far.

At SBP we make a promise to Americorps to give training in what we call “Life After Americorps.” It makes sense to teach TPS skills as part of this promise, even though it is a large undertaking.

SBP has 50 full-time staff members and more than 180 AmeriCorps members at any given time. That means we have 140% turnover every 10 months. To make it work, SBP staff had to learn how to be TPS coaches to mentor Americorps members through problem-hunting training projects.

We had a finite amount of time with every AmeriCorps member, so we knew we needed to be very clear about our expectations from the beginning and plan for each step of their education. For instance, site supervisors received six weeks of training before they worked on their own. This included specific instructions on construction processes, how to teach and inspire volunteers to build houses, and what we mean by TPS.


During AmeriCorps orientation in New Orleans (which happens four to six times a year to accommodate staggered starting dates) we have a TSSC advisor come in and give a half day of training on the philosophy of TPS. Members learn about respect for people, bringing problems to the surface, and knowing whether we are ahead or behind. They learn about identifying waste and how to solve problems. Even if they do not have perfect recall following this training they have at least been introduced to the ideas.

AmeriCorps members usually need between one to three months to master their jobs as site supervisors, supply and logistics coordinators, or in client services. After that—right around their fourth or fifth month with us—it is time for a member to identify at least one problem to solve. That’s when we start mentoring them through problem solving, forming teams, and completing each step of the process for implementing countermeasures.

The first step is identifying a problem, using observation and collected data, and then writing a description of it that is specific yet open-ended. We do not want anyone to presume a solution or cast blame in their problem statement, so members receive coaching as they write.

Then we put together a team to address the problem. Sometimes these teams have members from across the functional areas, other times everyone is in the same department. Team makeup is decided by the nature of the problem and whether a coach thinks the team needs an outside perspective. Time, or lack thereof, and availability are also factors.

Teams are then taught to work through each of the seven problem-solving steps together:

  1. Go see the problem at the point of occurrence.
  2. Collect facts (a record of events) and data (measurements of those events) regarding the problem.
  3. Set a future target condition and date for completion.
  4. Perform root cause analysis using the 5 Whys.
  5. Analyze the factors involved, including the people, the materials or machines, and the methods used.
  6. Analyze the proposed countermeasures for effects on the organization.
  7. Create a plan: who does what, when, in order to put the countermeasures in place?

It is important to note that Toyota emphasizes finding countermeasures to problems, not solutions. A solution sounds like there is one right answer. But we know that a better countermeasure to a problem might be found in the future and that any countermeasure is likely to create new problems, even as it “solves” the immediate one.

This improvement work itself calls for ongoing “constructive discontent.” But we intend to maintain a disciplined focus on this effort. Creating a positive, problem-solving culture encourages flexibility and creativity.

To Do:

  • Buy a copy of Getting Home to be inspired while getting improvement ideas from SBP’s proven business methods for people management, continuous improvement, and developing a respectful, problem-solving culture based on values.


The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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1 Comment | Post a Comment
Jean Cunningham May 24, 2019

I sent a copy of Getting Home to President and Mrs. Carter to share the good work at SBP with them. I just received a lovely letter back thanking us for the book and the good work in Lean.  Thanks Zack and Liz!

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