problem solvingShow me any employee who is making lots of bad decisions, and I’ll show you someone who needs to be making a lot fewer decisions, at least for a while. And most of those decisions have already been made. 

Most “mistakes” in problem solving are decisions that were never up to that employee in the first place. Instead of trying to “make a decision,” that employee should have just implemented the ready-made solution—a decision that was already made a long time ago. As a manager, the question you need to ask yourself is: What kind of job aids do you have at your disposal to help your employees use ready-made solutions for dealing with recurring problems, so they don’t have to problem solve anew each time? 

If you do already have such job aids at your disposal, then make sure everybody on your team is using them. Go on a campaign. Spread the tools and spread the word. Use them as a centerpiece of your regular one-on-one dialogue with each person until they know the check-lists backward and forward and use them without fail. If you do not already have good job aids at your disposal, then you need to start working with your direct-reports to create some! 

If several people on your team are doing the same work and facing the same problems, pull them together as a team. Otherwise take it one person at a time. Start by brainstorming on these issues: 

  • Make a list of every recurring problem you face.
  • Take each problem, one by one, asking:
    • Is there an established policy, procedure for this problem?
    • What resources are available?
    • How much discretion will the individual have to improvise? What is the best solution here?
  • Spell out a best practice for each problem, step-by-step.
  • Make that spelled out best practice a standard operating procedure.
  • Turn those standard operating procedures into simple job-aids, like check-lists or automated menu-driven systems.
  • Make sure everyone starts using them. 

Once you have created these job-aids, you can use them for training and retraining and, of course, in your regular one-on-one coaching.  Every step of the way, as you use these job aids to coach your employees, pay close attention. Job aids should be dynamic living tools that you can revise and improve over time. 

Sometimes managers will ask me, “Yes, but doesn’t this approach actually end-run teaching problem-solving? If they never have to puzzle through a problem, how do employees learn to solve problems on their own?” 

My response is always the same. For starters, employees will learn and practice the best step-by-step solutions to as many recurring problems as you can possibly think up in advance. Over time, together, you and they will add more and more recurring problems—and solutions—to that list. Employees who study those best practices and use those job aids will develop steadily growing repertoires of ready-made solutions. There will be a lot of problems they can solve very well. 

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“But wait,” a manager might protest: “What happens when the employee runs across a problem that was not specifically anticipated? If they are taught to implement ready-made step-by-step solutions, like robots, they won’t know how to think for themselves. Won’t they freeze up in the face of an unanticipated problem?” 

The answer is no. It turns out that by learning and practicing ready-made, step-by-step solutions, employees get better not only at solving the specific problems anticipated, but also at solving unanticipated problems. By teaching employees to implement specific step-by-step solutions to recurring problems, you are teaching them what good problem solving looks like—like so many case studies. 

This is the point at which some managers will say, “I’m sorry, you never really learn unless you face some big problems and make some of your own mistakes. I like to let people learn from their own mistakes.” 

But why not help them avoid making unnecessary mistakes? It is simply nonsense to think that a good way to learn problem solving is to stumble through problems alone, unguided, trying out solutions based on relatively inexperienced guesses. Why would experience having unsuccessful encounters with problems be a good way to learn problem solving?

Experience solving problems successfully is what comes from learning and practicing ready-made solutions. Employees get in the habit of solving problems well and learn what effective solutions look like, which is a much better foundation for improvising should unanticipated problems arise. 

You will have many more problems that are solved quickly and easily. You will have fewer problems that are mishandled and fewer problems that hide below the radar and fester and grow unbeknownst to anyone.