Lean management expert Brent Wahba writes on his blog
that many of the problems we face at work “are often the result of somebody’s well-meaning improvement attempts in the past.”
Wahba offers a few examples:
Original problem: “Sales are too low!”
Solution: Streamline the sales process to close more deals
New problem: The quality and responsiveness of customer service suffers, and customers are less satisfied
Original problem: “We aren’t learning fast enough!”
Solution: “Fail fast, fail cheap”
New problem: A new culture forms based on trying anything, instead of conducting thoughtful experiments and effectively using existing knowledge
Original problem: “We need to get lean!”
Solution: Copy another company’s methods or hire a lean management consultant
New problem: There’s a culture mismatch and resistance to the new methods
How can we avoid situations like this?
Wahba acknowledges that in complex systems like organizations, you can’t guarantee that your solution won’t create new problems.
But you can increase your odds of preventing new problems by deliberately thinking ahead to identify possible unintended consequences, and creating robust countermeasures.
Wahba recommends the following three approaches:
1. Clearly define the problem that needs to be solved
As Wahba puts it, solving “wrong or unimportant problems is a sure-fire way to create future waste.”
It pays to spend time upfront discussing and answering questions such as: What problem are we solving? Why is this a high-priority problem? What is the specific, measurable gap that we are trying to close?
2. Test, improve, repeat
A well-designed experiment can help uncover both the good and the bad aspects of a given solution before committing an entire organization’s resources.
This more patient approach allows you to improve the solution, and address its unexpected shortcomings before it becomes a new standard.
3. Remember that you’re dealing with people
Wahba notes that changing our minds and behavior is a rewiring process that happens incrementally: “If you expect people to change quickly and dramatically, you’re setting yourself and your team up for another round of unintended consequences.”