Published: February 10, 2022

This is the second article of our six-part power of a problem series. Missed the introductory article? Read it here.

Last week, we kicked off our power of a problem series by describing what can happen when we don’t take the time to properly identify the right problem from the start. This week, we’re going to share techniques that we, as Lean specialists, use to help local governments see how incidents that appear isolated may actually be connected and indicative of a systemic problem.

Here’s this week’s scenario, which illustrates how deeper problems can masquerade as one-off events.

One Monday lunch hour, Fatima, the Wellsville finance director, picked up a phone call from the angry owner of a local repair shop. He’d sent in a bill for repairing the city dump truck three and a half months ago, and he still hadn’t been paid. Fatima checked with her team and found the invoice buried on the accounts payable clerk’s desk. She worked closely with the clerk to pay the invoice and mail the check, assuming that it was a one-off late payment incident.

Two weeks later, Fatima fielded a call from a local print shop about an invoice that was nine weeks overdue. She found the approved invoice in an interoffice envelope in the wrong box in the mailroom. She also recalled an earlier complaint from a welder about his unpaid bill for fixing a park gate. The accounts payable clerk had approved that invoice, but it had not been processed nor a check issued.

Fatima then remembered the complaints from one of her clerks that public works’ invoices were taking a long time to be approved. Additionally, one of her accountants had proposed a tracking system for invoices a few months ago.

Initially, Fatima treated these incidents as one-off events. But as she thought more about each episode, she recalled the approach that her city manager, Ellen, shared to identify and define a problem. Asking herself a series of questions, Fatima began to recognize a pattern in the accounts payable process that suggested a deeper problem.

While she still has more work to do to define the scope of the problem, Fatima identified the systemic nature of it. Now she can begin working with her team to improve the process and ensure vendors are paid on time.

Common signals that the process is the problem

It can be challenging to distinguish between a one-off occurrence and a systemic or process-related problem. As the finance director, one of Fatima’s responsibilities is to understand how the system works as a whole. Here are the questions she asked herself to distinguish singular events from systemic issues.

  • What do your customers say? It’s important to pay attention to casual feedback from customers—not just formal complaints or customer survey data. We quickly become used to our own processes and explain or even justify them to the public. When someone says, “this service could really be a lot better,” it takes a bit of humility and a lot of courage to say, “yes, you are right.”
  • Do you see patterns in the complaints that you hear from customers or suppliers? Fatima received multiple complaints from vendors, a sure sign that something was broken in the process. Each customer or supplier might frame complaints a little differently. Learning to connect the dots to see underlying patterns across multiple sources is important for identifying the right problem.
  • Are you hearing complaints from your staff or are they suggesting improvements? When your employees complain about a process, ask questions to help them describe what they are experiencing. Listen to them when they suggest that a process could be better!
  • What does the data say? When Fatima looked through the invoices, she saw that many were marked with payment terms of net 30 days, yet in some cases it took months to process a straightforward vendor invoice. Common sense can tell you a lot, and Fatima realized this was additional evidence of a systemic problem.
  • What are your peers telling you? No team works in a vacuum. Although Fatima hadn’t yet heard any concerns from her fellow department heads, it’s likely that issues in the accounts payable process were causing frustrations in other departments.
  • What do you see in the workplace? In addition to vendor complaints, Fatima found invoices buried in the mailroom and on desks. As you identify your problem, your own sensory data is a valuable tool. A noisy lobby, a cluttered storeroom or a sliding stack of papers can be indications that some part of a process could use a tune-up.

Can you fix the problem now?

Once you have identified that you have a problem, what is the next step? Many managers feel like their job is to fix the problem immediately. Identifying the problem is only the first step, and quickly firing off ill-considered solutions can create even more headaches. Next week, we’ll look at how to define the problem you’ve identified.

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