May 1, 2012

Train your staff to think 'solutions' not 'problems'


Over the years I have come to accept that it is human nature to identify problems without suggesting a solution. I thank my lucky stars each day that my parents gave me the independence I needed as a kid to think for myself and hone my own problem-solving skills.

Unfortunately, many of your staff will not be naturally inclined to resolve the problems they identify on their own. Complaining about this fact to other owners at networking events is not going to fix the problem. Accepting this fact and doing all the thinking for your staff is going to make it worse, not better.

You are the owner. It is your show. It is up to you to create the culture that will not allow people to identify problems without solutions. You cannot tolerate moaning and groaning about problems.

When people complain, you need to reply with, “What would you like me to do about it?” or better yet, “How would you suggest we change things?”

These questions are what I refer to as power questions. You have the power, and you are clearly transferring it to them and teaching them that, in your operation, they need to be a problem solver. If you try to fix every problem, the moaning will only persist and worsen with time. You will be overwhelmed each and every hour of your day, running around doing everything, but not doing anything particularly well. You will lay down at night tired, stressed, frustrated and feeling alone in your desire to build a successful company.

We all have our share of problems and there is no shortage of people who get frustrated by them, or who will point them out to us. However, it is up to you, the business owner, to harness the problem-identification (i.e. complaints) into a continuous improvement cycle that encourages people in your company to become empowered problem solvers.

I recently had an employee tell me that he often feels he is not clear enough on the upcoming workload for his team. He is second in command on the landscape construction crew he works on. I asked him what he meant, and I asked for details. His reply was, “(The supervisor) is not letting me in on the overall plan for the week and the upcoming weeks. I feel like I am not contributing as much as I can because I don’t have all the information.” Seems simple, but it is very complicated in my company, and I am sure it is in many others. I asked this employee for an example. He provided me with a few. It became clear to me that the information he was missing was likely, in many cases, information that even the supervisor did not have, based on a number of variables.

This employee was clearly frustrated because he thought the supervisor was not communicating all of the information clearly. (I think this was partially true.) I spent close to an hour on a chalk board in our planning room explaining how the project variables impact the capability of the project supervisor to clearly schedule every detail more than a few days at a time (it was a 12-week project) because of weather, other building trades, material management, site logistics, and client and consultant input. I explained that a major part of the management role in the landscape construction field is to constantly seek information and adapt plans to complete the work as efficiently and safely as possible. I think he understood, but I cannot say for sure that the answer I provided is what he hoped to hear.

My final question to him was, “Does this make sense?” He said he understood, but then he expanded by saying he thinks he needs to ask more questions and identify the project needs sooner, and to consider the variables more. I think he solved his own problem. My point is, sometimes you need to help less experienced people find the answers to complicated issues like this.

An even simpler example came up recently. We had a shortage of parking space in our yard for staff parking in the morning. One of the employees came to me saying that he could not find a spot. I went and had a look. Our lot is gravel, so there are not any lines painted to keep people parked tight. I asked him what the solution was. He responded immediately, “The cars are parked too far apart, and we are wasting a lot of room.” I replied, “What are you going to do about it?”

He looked a little puzzled at first, so I repeated myself by asking if he had an idea of what he could do tomorrow morning to fix this problem. He replied, “I will come in early and make sure everybody backs into their parking spaces and that the cars are closer together so there is room for everybody.”

It was a good start in my mind, but not a solution. We don’t need to hire a parking manager each morning. But instead of shooting the idea down, I simply asked “Then what?”

Again puzzled he said, “I guess I can do that more often.”

I replied, “Wouldn’t that be a waste of your time?”

He agreed. I helped him by suggesting he leave a note on the cars that are not backing in, or are parking to far apart. Now it is his job, not mine! He didn’t have all the experience needed to fully solve the problem, so I helped, but I ensured the responsibility was left to him, and before parting ways I let him know that I appreciated his interest. I would now be holding him accountable for the parking and the added responsibility was a step forward for him.

Make sure that in your efforts to teach and force people to become problem solvers you don’t forget to coach and help. Sometimes people don’t have the experience to completely solve a problem. In that case help, but don’t do it for them. In all cases, empower your staff to implement improvements and solve problems. Make sure everybody in your company knows that it is better to be wrong once in a while than to sit on your hands or complain aimlessly.

Building a better business can feel like scaling a cliff. You’re staring up at this next-to-impossible climb up a sheer face with just a few ropes to cling to – one of those ropes is your sanity and it’s starting to fray! But it doesn’t have to be that difficult. Instead, think of building a better business like a set of stairs. Individually, each step is small, quick and easy-to-climb, but string them together and they’ll get you to the top. If you look at all the problems in your business at once, it can be tempting to just hang out at the bottom and talk about how impossible the climb is. But by building one simple step at a time, you’ll get to the top.
Mark Bradley is president of The Beach Gardener and the Landscape Management Network (LMN), in Ontario. LMN provides education, tools and systems built to improve landscape industry businesses.