Updated: Sep 1, 2021
I used to joke that my husband and I were both firefighters. He’s an actual firefighter, but I was in project management putting out metaphorical fires.
That’s what it felt like sometimes: I addressed the most burning issues, making stakeholders temporarily happy, but with no time to figure out where the spark was coming from that caused all these emergencies.
I also noticed, that when others tried to look into the root issues, they often went in with an assumption of blame; they were intent on “fixing the problem,” by telling other people where they were in the wrong.
I had the opportunity to try a new approach one year when I was moved to an operations role on a team that was wrestling with two key issues:
Vendors weren’t being paid on time, and
Contracts and purchase orders (PO) approvals were slow as molasses (or so it felt).
Now, if I had wanted to quickly impress my new boss with the ability to be “the fixer,” I could have had the vendors paid as soon as possible by sweet talking people or going to other people’s bosses. But if I’d done that, we would never have gotten to the root causes, and I would have burned more bridges than I built.
That approach also would have been a horrible way to treat people. Ultimately, people matter. People are a part of all problems and solutions, so treating people with respect and dignity—even in the midst of urgent or tense situations—is critical.
So how do you problem-solve critical, foundational issues with a people-centric approach that gets to the root of the problem?
First: Assess the situation
If you’ve ever taken a first aid class, you’ll recognize this right away. Panicking and reacting rashly doesn’t help in any situation—especially at work. Regardless of how much time you have to process (minutes, hours, days, or weeks), you must make time, take a step back, and ask questions to understand the bigger picture that’s unfolding.
Look for the root causes. Don’t accept pat answers from people like “Finance is just slow.” More often than not, these statements are unfair generalizations; the daily struggles and expectations differ from team to team, and there are usually additional contexts influencing the situation.
Given this case, I decided to use some of those overdue invoices to tease out those root causes. I reviewed the invoices and picked a few that seemed most pressing. From there, I reached out to individuals in Finance, Legal, and Operations to learning how we could change our process.
Second: Seek insight, humbly
Once you’ve evaluated the situation, departments or people will stand out who are pivotal in this process. In this case, I set up times to meet with 1-2 individuals in each of the three departments. I scheduled an hour, brought the invoices in question, but the first thing I said was not, “These are overdue, please help!”
Rather, I said, “These invoices are overdue, and I’d like to accomplish two things: First, understand what our department needs to do so that we can unclog these high-priority ones. And second, I also want to learn how our department needs to change to ensure this process runs smoothly for you going forward.”
All three times—jaws dropped. It appeared I was the first one to come to them with an intent to learn and a desire to make their job easier and more efficient.
As we began talking about the invoices in question, I was then able to ask one of the best questions I’ve ever asked another colleague: “Will you please show me what you do and how you do it so I can better understand your context?”
In most cases, the person’s eyes lit up! They were so excited to show me how they did their job, and it provided far more insight than I ever could have gleaned by simply being the “squeaky wheel” and asking them to push an invoice through.
The thing is, when you meet with these departments, your intent has to be legit; you have to truly want to learn and implement what you learn, otherwise, the bridges you build will crumble, and they’ll be a lot harder to repair later!
So I with each team, I asked questions like:
When did you receive these? (Helps pinpoint a specific timeline.)
Was all the documentation completed that you needed to process? (Gives you insight into what documentation is needed.)
What could our team have done better or prepared better for next time?
What do you need before you can approve a contract?
Can you show me the system you use to track these? (What information is critical along the process?)
By going to each team, humbly, owning our own mistakes, I built bridges. I also ended up understanding our team’s ecosystem much better because no team exists in isolation; you’re always connected with others, and it’s critical to respect those roles the other teams play and how they have to play them.
In this case, I discovered that the vendors weren’t being paid because we had gone over the amount stated in the contract. In addition, contracts were slow because we weren’t being attentive to the contract parameters, nor did we have any of the “new vendor” forms in place before starting work.
Bam! We found the root issues.
Third, define a new process
Now you’re getting to the fun stuff. Improve the process!
Some people hear “process,” and think of those huge, cumbersome, unreadable manuals with boring flow charts that basically become dusty paperweights on your shelf.
Good process isn’t like that.
Think about it: you follow process every day. You (presumably) have a morning routine that includes something like: shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, and brush your teeth. If you had to physically write out every step and every nuance and decision (which toothpaste? why?) of how you get ready in the morning, it’d be dull as dirt! No one wants to read that.
So the key is to present the process in a digestible way that shows people how their lives will be improved by following these few key steps.
If you’re a designer, draw a process. If you’re like me, you write it out in bullet form—maybe with some blue headings. (Don’t be jealous of my boundless creativity!) But keep it short. I kept the process short, but then created a Dropbox folder of all the associated forms so the team could easily access them.
Fourth, train other core people on that process
Defining a process won’t do much good if it stays in your brain. You have to share it with others and train them on it—while showing how it’ll make their jobs more efficient by doing so.
In this case, I focused on gathering the administrative assistants who reported to the directors. Should the directors to be aware of these processes? Yes! Absolutely! But, who has the ear of the director as they’re beginning to mull over a new idea or a new vendor? The administrative staff.
After bringing them on board, they were then equipped with clear processes, documents, and they knew trigger words to listen for and what to do when they heard them.
They also had words and policy to educate the directors along the way. Process really gets ingrained once it’s being used, and you kick the tires.
Fifth, keep the conversations going
My daughter often quotes her kindergarten teacher who says, “Once you’re done, you’ve just begun.” In her class, it’s intended to encourage a spirit of constant learning and curiosity.
In this case, it’s a reminder that defining a process doesn’t just end with step 4. If you want constant improvement, then you need to keep asking questions and evaluating.
In this case, I met with the administrative team monthly to review the processes, ask questions, and tee up questions for other departments. But I also checked in regularly with Legal and Finance to see how the process was flowing from their vantage point.
I even took a crazy step and scheduled time with our CFO who, at the time, had concerns about how our team was operating. I truly wanted to know if the new process was working and if she had any other guidance on how we could improve.
Humbly approaching others may suck at the time, but honestly—if done with a genuine desire to learn and improve—the respect and awareness for you and your team will grow.
Here’s the crazy thing: During this entire time, no one reported directly to me and I was remote. Most of the people I interacted with were in one of two other headquarters offices. When I was in town, I met in-person as much as possible, but the majority of this was done over phone calls, Skype sessions, and emails.
Although in-person meetings can be helpful in these situations, don’t let that deter you; regardless of your location, you can evaluate, seek insight, convene people, and practice constant improvement.