SOLVING BUSINESS PROBLEMS

and MAKING BUSINESS DECISIONS

by Joelle Steele

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Every business must deal with day-to-day dilemmas that require immediate attention, and with potential problems that necessitate careful evaluation and consideration in order to achieve workable solutions. How these solutions are uncovered and how decisions are made to implement them is the topic of this article.

PROBLEM SOLVING

What is a problem? A problem is any question or situation that creates uncertainty or difficulty in accomplishing a short-, interim, or long-term goal. A problem may be something as simple as eliminating a daily annoyance such as a door that is stuck or a computer printer that makes too much noise. It could be an obstacle to completing a day's work such as a vehicle breakdown or an employee absence. It could also be an all-encompassing disaster waiting to happen, manifesting itself as a lot of smaller but related problems such as increasingly low morale, high incidence of client complaints and turnover, or excessive plant losses.

Every problem deserves a solution. But, many solutions are "band-aid" remedies which offer only a tiny measure of temporary relief by addressing the most visible symptom. For example, a vehicle gets a flat and the already well-worn tire is patched rather than replaced because there is no substitute vehicle, or because the company cannot afford to replace the tire. Band-aid solutions answer problems that require immediate, stop-gap remedies so that the days work can be completed. They are not permanent cures because they do not completely fix the problem (the tire still needs to be replaced). They are interim measures and must be followed up with permanent solutions.

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Finding a permanent solution means that the problem must be identified and broken down into its smallest components. This involves getting to the root of the problem and the root may not always be immediately evident. Sometimes a problem appears to be one thing when it is really something entirely different.

15 STEPS TO EFFECTIVE PROBLEM SOLVING

1. Make problem solving a priority

2. Practice preventative measures whenever possible

3. Notice the symptoms of the most common problems

4. Confront problems immediately

5. Gather all pertinent information from everyone involved

6. Consult experts as necessary

7. Analyze problems thoroughly and get to the root of them

8. Examine all possible solutions from different sources

9. Determine the best solution for your company

10. Assemble a comprehensive plan for solving the problem

11. Present the plan to everyone involved or affected by it

12. Implement the plan in a thorough and organized manner

13. Follow up on the progress of the implemented plan

14. Make adjustments or improvements to the plan as needed

15. Keep your eyes open for symptoms of further problems

A SAMPLE PROBLEM

Here's a common problem for most horticultural service company: plant losses. Every business wants to reduce them. To do so, the reason for the losses must be found and the appropriate permanent solution must be uncovered which will result in reducing or eliminating those losses. If a company does not track their losses, i.e., logging them and analyzing the results, it may appear that the losses are random (Dracaenas) versus specific (Dracaena 'Janet Craigs'), or more precisely, the craigiis purchased from Corn Plant Growers, Inc. in 1989. A similar scenario could be pothos in general versus pothos in low light locations, or more specifically, pothos lost during the summer months, or to be most precise, those clients on Mary's route in the San Fernando Valley (where it gets very hot) who do not have air conditioning. Or, it is the problem most common to plant losses in general: incorrect watering, a problem easily managed by improved training procedures.

In each of the above analyses, the most precise end result is what must be addressed when seeking a permanent solution. When using surface data (general information as opposed to exact information), you will inevitably arrive at one of those "band-aid" solutions. For example, if you decide to beef up your training program to help reduce plant losses, you may succeed in part because your staff will be better equipped to handle the maintenance service. This is a good idea, but it is not a complete or permanent solution if the cause is diseased or infested plants purchased at Corn Plant Growers, Inc. Continuing to buy from that grower may actually create other problems, particularly morale problems, as your now highly-trained technicians become frustrated and discouraged in their on-going struggle to keep plants alive that were unhealthy to begin with.

In any business, small ones in particular, the number of problems can seem overwhelming at times. When you are a working owner it can be difficult to address problems as they arise. There are so many pressing demands on your time. But, as all the little problems pile up waiting for solutions, bigger problems can be looming ahead, problems that are exceedingly more difficult to assess and resolve due to their growing complexity.

PREVENTING AND CONFRONTING PROBLEMS

How do you confront problems on a regular basis so that they do not turn into administrative nightmares? Most problems can be eliminated before they begin by good, solid planning in the formative stages of a business. But, even with meticulous planning there are bound to be some unforeseen problems in addition to the daily anticipated obstacles such as accidents, vehicle failures, late deliveries, employee illness, personality conflicts, traffic jams, and foul weather. On top of those problems will be the ones that are created when snap decisions are made by owners or key employees which affect the company, in whole or in part, in an adverse manner. Sometimes it is hard to face up to these problems because of time constraints or due to the simple fear of being unable to fix them.

Confronting problems means taking some time away from the daily routine and examining a company objectively. This is sometimes difficult for an owner (especially in a one-person operation), when he or she "can't see the forest for the trees," a typical analogy for owners who are so deeply connected to their companies that they have a hard time making the distinction between themselves and their businesses as separate entities. These individuals defer problem solving because it seems that finding fault with the business is the same as self-criticism. They see every problem as a personal failure. In such cases, the first step is for the owner to divorce the "self" from the business and recognize the company as "what you do" rather than "what you are." This enables small business owners to become more objective and confrontational in dealing with problems.

Once an owner is able to critically examine the business objectively, time must be devoted to such an activity on a regular basis. Most serious problems do not just "happen" overnight. It takes time to create a problem, to ignore it, to encourage it, or to simply allow it to take on a life of its own. When left untended, this horrible, full-blown catastrophe occurs, all at once and seemingly without warning, and everyone sits down very somberly and says, "I guess we better do something about this right away." Usually when a situation has gotten this out of control, a fast solution is called for and these "drastic measures" are nothing more than the aforementioned "band-aid" solutions. Even if an immediate solution is necessary, big problems do not go away with "quickie" solutions. They took a long time to get big and ugly and it is going to take some time to reduce them to their smallest elements, to examine possible solutions, to pick one (or several if necessary), and implement it.

INVESTIGATION SOLUTIONS

Finding the best solution requires as much investigative time as it does to isolate the problem in the first place. For example, if technicians are not turning in their paperwork and this is determined to be caused by lack of time, then there are at least two pretty obvious options for solutions: the maintenance schedules can be altered to allow more time each day for the completion of paperwork, or, the forms which they fill out can be simplified. Both are good solutions on the surface because they will both probably solve the problem. But, all solutions have far-reaching consequences. If you alter the maintenance routes you may find that you need to hire another technician. And, how long will it take you to rearrange the schedules? Can they be rescheduled at all? In some of the smallest companies there may be only one or two routes. What about those clients who want service only on certain days? Making such an extensive change may be a good solution if your paperwork has already been simplified, but if it has not, rewriting the forms is more likely to be the logical and best solution to this problem. It will not upset the technicians from their routines and will not disrupt the lives of clients. In all probability it will make the technician's workload more bearable and will take some of the pressure off of them now that they are not being nagged to fill out such time-consuming paperwork.

MAKING DECISIONS

Decision making goes hand-in-hand with problem solving. In fact, decision making goes hand-in-hand with just about everything that happens in a business and in life in general for that matter. We make decisions every waking hour of the day from deciding what to eat for breakfast (or where to stop for coffee), to deciding how much to charge for a particular installation. Some decisions are "automatic." We already know everything we need to know in order to make them. In other cases, we need to gather information, consult others, and arrive at a logical decision based on the accumulation of new facts and data.

These more carefully thought-out decisions are part of the problem solving process and their ultimate success or failure is predicated upon how thoroughly the investigative aspects of the process are conducted. But, what happens when an owner knows there is a problem, has investigated it thoroughly, yet fails to make a decision to take remedial action? Obviously, the problem continues to escalate. Why do some owners only get as far as this stage and then stop mid-process?

As some owners fear confronting a problem, some fear making the wrong decision. They procrastinate because they see the problem as so serious and overwhelming that they do not want to make a mistake and see the situation get even worse. But, their indecision is probably already making the situation worse anyway. Individuals who are indecisive must either overcome their fear of failure, or they must associate themselves with experts who can advise them accurately, or they might wish to consider adding a partner, or they must learn to delegate decision making authority to their employees.

CONSULTING AN EXPERT

If an owner is a one-person operation, consulting an expert such as a consultant, accountant, lawyer, or other professional advisor, is the easiest way out of this inactive state. It does not let the owner off the hook as far as investigating the problem and finding alternative solutions, but it will often give him or her the support and encouragement necessary to make a decision they knew was good all along but about which they had personal doubt. Eventually, an owner will become more adept at making decisions and will begin to value his or her own judgment more highly as their track record improves in the area of decision-making.

For sole-proprietors who have little business sense and find themselves unable to make decisions even after consulting their advisors, partnerships with more decisive individuals may offer a partial solution. As is the case with consulting advisors, partnerships do not let the indecisive partner dump all the decision making onto the other partner. It is still a shared process, however, one partner (the decisive one), may end up having the final say. This means that they must both have a very thorough understanding of both the possible decisions and the potential ramifications of those decisions. When the decisive partner sets the final action in motion they must both be in agreement that it is, in fact, the right decision.

DELEGATING DECISIONS

In both sole-proprietorships and partnerships, much of the daily decision making process should be in the hands of responsible employees. Most employees make decisions about their immediate activities anyway. But, in some companies, supervisors and middle-management workers have no real authority behind their fancy titles. Everything they do is closely watched and dictated by the owner of the company. When the supervisor has a problem with an employee, he or she goes directly to the owner with it and the owner tells the supervisor how to proceed. This scenario is very typical of small businesses, especially those with flat structures (in which everyone answers directly to the owner), as opposed to hierarchical structures (in which everyone follows a chain of command).

Since small business owners are usually occupied with spreading themselves "paper-thin" in vain attempts to wear every hat in the place, the decision to delegate decision making authority to employees is often the one that most desperately needs to be made. When the owner is trying to do too many things and is also indecisive, he or she often ends up being part of a problem rather than the creator of a solution. These kinds of owners "nitpick" endlessly. They look for problems where none exist and overlook or ignore the obvious catastrophes lurking in every corner. In companies with this kind of owner, there is a general chaotic atmosphere in which poorly trained employees abound, employee and client turnover is high, no one knows what anyone else is doing, there are no set rules or procedures for how to do anything, and the word "boss" is a four-letter word.

If you recognize yourself in the last paragraph, do not despair! There is hope for you and others like you. Once you determine who the logical person is to whom you can delegate decision making authority, you can figure out which are the most elementary, simple decisions which need to be made and delegate them first. This serves two purposes: 1) you do not have to feel that you are letting go of everything all at once, and, 2) both you and your employee get to test the waters and make sure that you are both handling the delegation properly.

DELEGATING AUTHORITY

Because decision making is so important to the smooth operations of a business, it must be carefully defined when it is delegated. Telling an employee that they are responsible for making a decision is not the same thing as giving them the authority to carry out the decision independently of you. And, giving them any decision making duties means that they must be trained to do so, particularly if they having been running to you with every little thing for the past two years. This calls for a written (or rewritten), job description that states specifically which kinds of decisions they can make, what techniques they are to use to arrive at those decisions, and how their decisions are to be implemented. After all, delegating means you want them out of your hair for these things, but you do not want them to make decisions which will have a detrimental effect on your business.

Once you have delegated the authority to make decisions, you may find that some of those decisions are not the ones you would have made even though they used the decision making process you dictated. Your employees, being unique individuals, may not see things exactly the way you do and they will form their decisions based on their own beliefs and feelings about a particular matter. If this is not in keeping with your business philosophy, you may have to accept the decision that is already made, particularly if it is not all that significant or if it would cause more problems to change it. But, you must immediately discuss your differences with the employee and let that person know how you would prefer to see similar decisions made and, most importantly, why you want decision made differently. If you want them to do what is best for the business you need to help them understand it from your side of the desk. You need to explain things so that their future decisions will conform with your goals and plans for the business.

SUMMARY

Problem solving and decision making are a part of every business, no matter how small or how large. Learning to spot problems (preferably before they occur or do too much damage), and carefully analyzing all possible solutions, sets the foundation for implementing responsible and efficient decisions that are necessary to the smooth operation and steady growth of any company.

This article last updated: 07/22/2000.