5 Keys to Effective Problem-Solving When You're Facing a Complex Operational Challenge
Here is a practical guide on how to look at all aspects of your project and start tackling them head-on.
If you work in the supply chain industry and serve clients globally, you know that preparation for disruption is part of your daily production. In this Amazon Prime era, where instant gratification is the name of the game, you are the bridge between a product brand and a consumer. Flawless execution, proactive anticipation of risks and consistent clarity on your objectives are requirements for success.
As a commercial leader of a manufacturing business, every time we kick off a program with a new client, I ensure that my team invests time into strategic planning and onboarding to set up every team member for success. This includes aligning expectations between the client and our internal teams, assigning the right talent for the task at hand and providing team members the right tools (software or hardware) and resources. We establish necessary program information such as budget, schedule, deliverables and KPIs of how we measure success.
Even though we can feel perfectly prepared for a new program, we have to keep in mind that in the intersection among human, machine, geopolitics, organizational objectives, suppliers and Mother Nature, there are risks that are outside of our control. From the get-go, we need to ask the following questions:
What could potentially go wrong?
How can we prepare for these risks?
Starting with a pre-mortem, then working backward to determine what could lead to potential failure builds confidence, resilience and an agile team spirit.
When encountering a challenge, the only way out is through
Despite your best efforts, sometimes circumstances can lead you to inherit a challenging project that is already halfway down the road.
Occasionally we can look at a problem superficially by consulting with critical program stakeholders and reviewing the key operating indicators, which can align with goals on some parts and on other pieces imply specific gaps. You advise and guide with a few initial fixes, expecting the situation will improve. Unfortunately, you realize the obstacle could be more profound than you anticipated.
In those situations, you have to accept that the only way out of the challenge is through. Rarely is there an easy fix to a problem. You have to be ready to take a deep dive into the challenge and assess every aspect. When confronted with a challenge, my methodology includes assessing the following areas and asking these types of questions:
Do all critical contributors have the necessary skill set (technical, commercial) and experience (IQ and EQ) to meet expectations?
Do team members trust each other and have a clear communication cadence? How can collaboration and communication be optimized for better efficiency?
Is everyone in the team empowered to raise concerns, share feedback and ask for support?
Is there a defined escalation path? Is every functional leader willing and capable to step in and share guidance when things get tough?
Capabilities and resources
Are all necessary assets in place, such as equipment and tools? Is the required capacity allocated to the project?
What are potential constraints of key suppliers and service providers? Are the terms of supply aligned with customer terms (e.g. flexibility, lead times, etc.)?
Have you taken inventory of all potential constraints? Developed contingency plans to increase speed in reaction and service?
Business scope and processes
What is the nature of the industry? What are its unique characteristics?
Are processes and best practices followed? And if yes, are they still applicable to the specific business profile?
How much flexibility is required to serve the customer/industry? How much volatility is within or out of range?
What’s the scope of the project? Has anything changed since the original agreement?
Do all involved parties bring strong advocates for the business?
Can individuals share ideas, mistakes and ask for help?
Is a trustworthy and safe environment established?
Are roles and responsibilities aligned and gaps identified that need to be filled?
Are both parties committed to co-creating a solution?
Measuring and reporting success
Is the answer to success aligned? Do all parties follow a standard set of goals?
Is the source of data aligned? Do we understand the methodology?
How can you establish a consistent reporting cadence in a digestible format with highlights and lowlights and share with all key stakeholders, including leadership?
Here’s the thing: You can’t fix what you can’t see, and these questions can help open the path for your discovery in the pursuit of a solution.
As in a marriage, you do not (generally) commit to a partner before you’ve dated them enough times to learn all about the person, from their wonderful attributes to the areas that might require some patience and work.
The same goes for your business relationships. Before committing to a long-term partnership, you need to take a thorough approach to understanding the other person. You need to be honest and transparent about potential challenges, areas of unknowns, differences in processes and/or scope. You need to commit to following through, no matter what. You need to be able to say, “I promise to support you in good times and bad times.”
But now you might be wondering, what happens after we overcome these obstacles? Beyond a delighted client and achieving business objectives, you develop a strong bond within a collaborating team that operates based on an aligned set of values such as trust, transparency, accountability, courage, drive, persistence and a unique companionship that can last decades. You establish a network of peers, friends and followers on whom you can lean. Through all this hard work, you are building an infrastructure that encourages creativity and a team of exceptional individuals who are committed to doing nothing but their very best in the service of others. And that, my dear friends, is the true measure of success.
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