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a hand holding a tablet with a list
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7 people around a table with a brown paper on it.
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Problem Solving with Unicorns and Elephants

an AI image of an elephant inside a room

I am continually being asked by clients to facilitate RCA’s or problem-solving sessions. Fortunately, I really enjoy doing these as it’s great to come in as an outsider and ‘ask the stupid questions’ which can more often than not, lead to an effective root cause being uncovered. Actions are implemented, performance improves, and I leave the site, the hero.

Hiding behind the ‘outsider’ label has other benefits as well. I can effectively ignore internal politics, silo thinking, favouritism, nepotism and all the other ‘isms’ which exist in some organisations. Straight away, this leaves me free to focus almost exclusively on the process or the system. I can point to the elephant in the room. But is bringing in an external facilitator the best approach for an organisation? – Long term, I think not.

At some stage, an internal facilitator must be found, trained, nurtured, and released into the wild world of Structured Problem Solving, and that person has to have certain characteristics and abilities – and herein lies the challenge. We’re hunting unicorns. The first two paragraphs of this piece list a lot of things which an internal facilitator inherently cannot do. They ignore internal politics at their peril. They’re in a company ‘silo’ with existing relationships: if they are an engineer, the unwritten rule tends to be “It’s Productions fault” and vice versa. And finally, they can’t ask the stupid questions because “they should know”.

The one thing I say without fail at the start of every problem-solving session is “This is not about the people, it’s about the process”. Often you see that the work done by Bob the apprentice had a mistake, but 99 times out of 100 it will be the process or system has failed – the outcome of which is Bobs error. There may have been no tools, no training, no time, the wrong parts arrived – none of this is down to Bob but the job didn’t get done correctly and fingers were pointed.

Continual reinforcement that it is the process not the people, at every session, -and several times within each session,- will gradually start to steer the oil tanker in the right direction.

In addition, our facilitator needs to be able to rein in the conversations when they start spiralling down rabbit holes and solutions are being offered left, right and centre before you can say “symptom, not root cause”. No problem-solving session is complete without the obligatory “But we’ve always done it this way” declaration which needs immediate follow up with “But why have we always done it this way?” – the difficulty of having this discussion is almost infinitely increased when you are having it with the General Manager.

In summary, our Unicorn needs to be persistent, strong, eloquent and speak with authority about the process of problem-solving while being able to listen to and filter all the many, varied and often conflicting opinions. They need to be able to address, well, anything.

‌So, who’s up for it?

‌Written by David Hall, senior consultant at Productivity People.