What is the Standard?

A problem was brought to my attention today. Some of our consultants are not submitting expense reports on time, causing us to be unable to bill clients on time. Simply put, some people are keeping other people from doing their job. This is a problem. It is not a new problem.
The requested action was to talk to certain people about this problem, in the hope that they would change their behavior. I have a dollar that says that this will not work. Why am I so confident that I would bet a dollar on this? First, a dollar today isn’t what it was a few months ago against other world currencies (but this is a separate problem). More to the point, asking people to “try harder” is simply doing what Deming taught us that we shouldn’t do; treat problems as people issues rather than process failures.
We need to ask why. What is the reason that after instruction, explanation, and some pleading, problems like this persist? Stop. I almost started listing the answers, with specific reasons tied to faces in my mind. These are surface causes, and moving onto solutions too quickly puts us asking “who?” rather than “why?” It is human nature and so easy to do. It takes a lot of discipline to follow through on proper and practical problem solving.
In fact the first question I asked when this problem was brought to me was “Who is still not getting their expenses in on time?” Why do we ask “who?” Perhaps because it takes far less asking to get the the answer to this question than when you ask “why?”
As I was driving home asking myself why and trying to formulate a problem statement in my mind, another question came up. What is the standard? That may be the most important question that has been unasked about this problem for too long.
What is the standard, the clear reason for the standard, and how do we make it immediately visible when this standard is not being followed, so that we can ask why? In a proper problem statement, the standard should be implied or implicitly included. So the first step in the investigation of this problem begins tomorrow morning by asking “What is the standard?” and comparing this to the actual.
Perhaps we will put up a visual board showing on-time percentage of expense reports and how this correlates to accounts receivable amount and cost to service our line of credit. But here I go again proposing solutions before root causes have been identified…

3 Comments

  1. Sachin Gopal

    November 7, 2007 - 3:28 am

    As you pointed out, it is very easy to pick up a “who” rather than a “why”.
    One of the reasons things do not happen in our company fast enough, is because people do NOT have the time!!
    If people built their time around their work rather than manage work around their time things would happen much faster!

  2. Chris Nicholls

    November 14, 2007 - 1:28 am

    Hi John
    Again thank you for all your recent blogs, I always find them stimulating. In this anecdote you have hit on something we are wrestling with here at Ricoh in the UK. It is most important to ask or find out “what” first before you look for “why” because unless you clearly understand what, the problem or standard or fact is, any subsequent investigation into why and any corrective actions that follow will be invalid and might not fix the problem. Its very easy to slip into an investigation of “who” is to blame and begin by suggesting solutions before you clearly know what the problem really is. The question of time raised by Sachin is ubiquitous we would all like more time to do more things however we just list up the problems and solve them one by one as soon as we can.
    Best Regards
    Chris

  3. Jon Miller

    November 15, 2007 - 12:29 pm

    Hi Chris,
    “What” is very important indeed. Identifying and defining the problem properly is one-third to half of the battle, with the “why” being the next major portion, and then the doing.
    It takes a lot of discipline to make long-term countermeasures based on what & why.