Moving Upstream from Delta

Solving Problems at Their Origin Effects Durable Change, Often at Lower Long-Term Cost

By Paul Tibbert, CEO of GRID

The formation of a river delta makes obvious where sediment ends up, but it tells you next to nothing about where it came from, or even how long it’s been there.

When business leaders try to solve big problems by taking a river-delta approach to fact finding, they often miss the origin, the root-cause, and the source of issues that cause them to repeatedly address outcomes, when they should be looking further upstream to eliminate the issue entirely.

Naturally, such an approach requires thought. Patience. Analysis. Ideation. Design. On the surface, this might seem to suggest a slowing-down — diverting resources from urgent priorities, at a cost of time, talent and treasure.  

But too many leaders and technicians are, in fact, expending wasted time, money and human capital by only looking at the open and obvious — the sediment in the river delta — while the river of issues continues to flow, deposits of problems continue to settle, and resources are diverted nevertheless in a constant, reactive, and recurring problem-solving process.

Maybe a Dam Would Break the Cycle

Think about the recurring issues and problems that occur in your business. Consider for a moment that such recurring issues are not the normal course of doing business. Quality control issues, customer complaints, employee turnover, supply chain disruptions, inconsistent sales, challenges with training and talent: none of these should be regarded as mere realities one is forced to accept.

Business leaders and IT professionals become experts at solving problems. Most even take pride in their ability to quickly identify problems, spring into action to fix them, then get back to mission-critical priorities without losing too much time nor sight of the big picture. But if such issues are recurring, what is truly being gained by the continuous stops and starts to address symptoms, if the causality of the problems is never considered nor corrected?

Add up all of the time your key personnel are spending “putting out fires” or responding to urgent problems, and assess them in their totality. Then we must ask ourselves, are we really saving money and time by not eliminating the flow of sediment in the first place? The deposits will continue to accumulate and create new problems, and even if you eliminate the delta completely, you can be sure that the constant flow of the river will bring new sediment where the old came from.

Now consider: What if you or your problem solvers went on an expedition upriver to identify where the problem was coming from, what was causing it, and whether they could either dam the stream or redirect the flow to eliminate, bypass or otherwise outsmart the problem once and for all?

Examples of Solutions that Eliminate the River Delta

Not every problem can be solved by applying a choke point or river dam, of course. But the costly, recurring, common occurrences are often the most disruptive to growth and profitability, and they are often the most suitable candidates for a more permanent solution that ultimately lowers costs, keeps staff focused on where they should be applying their talents and attention, and leads to higher client satisfaction and retention.

For example:

1 – Consider changing a process wholesale to optimize for repeatability and predictability, not just living with imperfection or inconsistency.

2 – Map out all steps in a process. Closely examine each step in the process to determine whether you can find a contributor to the issues you’re seeing at the delta. Keep moving further upstream until you’ve confidently identified the earliest true cause of the outcome you’re looking to correct.

3 – Once you’ve documented the earliest point in the process causing the issue, analyze how correcting the issue there might eliminate — not only the ultimate problem — but the other issues you encountered on your trip upstream. Perhaps you’ve killed multiple water fowl with fewer stones, at lower costs, both in the short-term and the long-term.

4 – Create systems, processes and technology that can inject greater transparency (so future problems can be easier and earlier detected), consistency and accountability. Re-engineered systems solve issues with durability, and often eliminate recurring problems in perpetuity.

5 – Perform an audit six or twelve months later: Is the problem eliminated completely, and with permanence? If not, perhaps you didn’t go far enough upstream initially. If you have been successful, though, consider how much time and money you’ve saved by eliminating the problem, not just repeatedly addressing symptom after symptom. Account not only for past attempts at correcting symptoms but also project forward for the time and money you won’t have to invest any longer to fix something that no longer needs fixing.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson once said, “You can’t argue with a river — it is going to flow. You can dam it up, put it to useful purposes, you can deflect it, but you can’t argue with it.”

Instead of getting into constant “arguments” with your data, results, problems, pain points and outcomes, forget about the sediment at the delta, and travel upstream, where the real problem lies.

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