One of the most important skills I had to develop during my career, is the ability to analyze and resolve mission critical problems. After some years I recognized, that it doesn’t matter, if these problems are caused by technological, organizational or human failures. There are common threads or patterns, which characterize most mission critical problems and which can be utilized to resolve these problems in an effective and sustainable way. The following thoughts should give you some orientation and guidance, how to deal with mission critical problems.

  1. Set up a task force of diverse professional experts, who are able to analyze the problem from various points of view (e.g. Sales, R&D, Production, IT, etc.) – the more diverse the skills and experience of these professional experts are, the better the results of the task force will be. Take care as well  that younger and more experienced professional experts are included into the task force, since both types of people usually look differently at problems.
  2. Let the task force be led by an independent and experienced manager, who is not personally affected by the problem – in order to ensure a neutral and factual problem analysis as well as targeted recommendations for problem resolution. It is useful if this manager has a good reputation within the company for integrity, reliability and independence. External task force leaders are also an option if it is ensured that they have adequate knowledge of the company (organization, processes, business purpose) and do not pursue their own interests (e.g. to generate additional consulting revenue via the task force).
  3. Instruct the task force to begin firefighting with the end in mind, i.e. let them analyze the problem from the perspective of the major (internal or external) customers or stakeholders. In case more than one stakeholder is affected by the problem, the task force members need to understand the different points of view and requirements of these stakeholders. This is of particular importance if problems have an impact on compliance, company reputation or even threaten the existence of the company. Under consideration of the stakeholder requirements, the task force should define a to-be-status, which is ideally a redesigned process after all recommendations have been implemented.
  4. Ensure that the task force performs a proper and independent root cause analysis, which reveals the structural reasons behind the mission critical problem. Root causes are unfortunately often not obvious. However, good news is: The facts are usually knows by the organization, but sometimes not outspoken due to various reasons. Therefore to identify the structural reason behind a problem the task force needs to apply a number of proven methodologies or techniques, such as standard questionnaires, surveys, benchmarking with comparable internal/external company units or simply the ‚ask 5 times why‘ methodology. According to my experience, the most important success factor in problem analysis is, to perform confidential interviews with an adequate number of different persons, who are involved into or affected by the problem based on a questionnaire comprising standard questions. The trick is, that you ask various persons the same questions and compare the answers after having conducted the interview series. After a relatively small number of interviews (approx. 10) you will start recognizing patterns in the answers of the interviewees. First important hint: The interviews need to be performed in an open atmosphere of mutual trust. The best way to ensure, that interviewees provide their opinion open and straightforward is, to guarantee each interviewee, that the content, which has been discussed in the personal interviews, will be kept strictly confidential. No interviewee should and will be quoted. All individual interview results must absolutely stay within the task force team. Confidentiality is really mission critical for the success of the entire task force, since the root causes cannot be identified without unlimited and unrestricted gathering of facts. Second important hint: The diversity of the interviewees has a deciding impact on the quality of the root cause analysis, because all essential facets of the problem and its root causes must be grasped and because complex problems often have cross-process root causes. The interviews should in principle be conducted by two interviewers: one, who asks questions, the second, who takes notes. The results of the interviews should be discussed and challenged by the entire task force team at the end of each working day. If important new aspects are raised by the interviewees during the interviews, the standard questionnaire of course should be enhanced.
  5. At the end of the analysis phase, the task force should formulate hypotheses based on indisputable facts, which summarize the major results of the root cause analysis, e.g. ‚The output of department x decreased by y% within the last four quarters due to unexpected enticement of 15 staff members by our major competitor‘. Important hint: All hypotheses should be presented to all interviewees in a so called ‚progress meeting‘, which should be scheduled approximately in the middle of the analysis phase. Major goal of the progress meeting is to ensure, that all hypotheses are correctly understood by the task force and fully accepted by the interviewees. In case of disagreement between task force and interviewees, concrete actions are to be agreed during the progress meeting to review and adjust the disputed hypotheses and double-check the underlying facts during the second half of the analysis phase.
  6. When the analysis phase has been properly performed as described, the deduction of adequate recommendations is usually only a formal procedure, since the recommendation only closes the gap between as-is status and the desired to-be-status as described by the hypotheses.
  7. The resolution of the mission critical problem by implementation of the recommendations is ‚only‘ mechanics. However my experience is, that the implementation should be coordinated by one responsible manager, who reports to the head of the business unit and after an adequate time span, the  task force should check, if all recommendations are adequately implemented.

Summary: Firefighting is no rocket science, however it requires a systematical approach, which includes the involvement of an independent, experienced and highly reputed task force manager, the setup of a task force with diverse professional experts and the systematical application of standard techniques and methodologies for problem analysis and resolution. Last but not least, the participation in a task force should be regarded as promotion step for ambitious staff members in your organization, since they will usually go through a tremendous learning curve during the task force work.

A German version of this blog is provided here:

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