Teaching people to solve problems

How often do your staff present you with problems? This essay discusses how you can teach them to work out the solutions for themselves.

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How often do you find yourself dealing with other people’s problems? It’s a common challenge that managers face when running their kitchen or business, and often your day can be fractured by numerous interruptions from staff bringing issues to you that they should be dealing with themselves.

Many years ago, when I worked in the fast food industry, I took a problem to my manager. Our Financial Controller had discovered that one of my outlets was $100 dollars short in their banking figures. Upon investigation, and much to my dismay, I found that one of my most talented and committed Assistant Managers had done the banking that day. He had found the banking to be over by $100 dollars and, assuming this was a windfall, had decided to pocket the money for himself. Two days later a shortfall became apparent, and his dishonest act was uncovered.

At the time I was inexperienced in dealing with problems like this, and agonised over what to do. The amount of money in question seemed insignificant when compared with the cost of recruiting and training a new Assistant Manager. I also knew that I was short staffed, and could not really afford to lose this staff member.

On the one hand, I felt the person had learnt their lesson and should be let-off with a severe warning, but at the same time I felt the matter was serious, and that justice should be seen to be done. After all, we entrusted our people with huge amounts of money and stock every day. If we allowed this type of action to go unpunished, it could easily spread.

Although my manager was sympathetic, I knew he was not going to solve the problem for me. But he showed me a technique that enabled me to solve the problem for myself — a technique I continue to use to this very day.

First, he asked me to define the problem, and the symptoms of the problem. He made me ask myself the question: ‘Are you dealing with the problem, or is this a symptom of the problem?’, and used the following example to explain the difference between the two. ‘Say you’ve got a huge headache. The headache is being caused by a brain tumor. You take a Panadol to cure your headache and it goes away. Is the problem solved?’

This approach led me to conclude that the problem was not missing money, or that the money was over by $100 in the first place. Nor was the problem one of a dishonest employee. The problem was how could we prevent this situation from happening again? After all, if you cure a symptom, the problem has the potential to reappear sometime in the future. But if you cure the problem, the solution should be permanent.

We then looked at what barriers may be faced in solving the problem. We considered questions like ‘How much money could we spend? How long would it take? What authority did I have? Whose approval would I need to obtain? My boss wrote all of these down in point form on the right hand side of a whiteboard.

Then he asked me to come up with all the possible solutions. Every suggestion, even those that seemed far-fetched or unrealistic, was written down. He explained that even a solution which at first appears far-fetched may have some value in addressing the problem. I ‘brain stormed’ my ideas out loud while he wrote them down, one after the other. At the end of this process we had a list with eight or ten possible ideas on how I could solve the problem.

The next step was to evaluate the ideas against the limitations. We went through the list again, and considered the merits and practicality of each idea against our list of limitations. Through this process we identified three ideas that could address the problem at hand:

  1. Dismiss the Assistant Manager to show how serious we believed the action to be, so that it could be seen as a deterrent to others.
  2. Write a memo to all managers explaining what happened, and how the matter had arisen.
  3. Develop a training program or session for the managers, so that they would understand the fail-safe nature of our accounting and control system.

I don’t pretend that I couldn’t have come up with these solutions off the top of my head, but this disciplined process allowed me to concentrate on identifying solutions that were the most appropriate for the problem at hand. It also allowed me to consider all the alternatives. I liked my manager’s approach to solving the problem — define the problem, ascertain the limits, generate possibilities, evaluate and then follow-up.

Not only did my boss show me a handy problem solving technique, he also forced me to think through the problem in a logical way. More importantly, he showed me how to take responsibility for my own decisions in dealing with the problem.

I now employ this technique when training managers. Over time I have found that this technique puts them in ‘no lose’ situation. If they make the right decision, they learn; if they make the wrong decision, they also learn. As a trainer, I only offer my advice if I believe the outcome they have selected may have further repercussions for them.

In my opinion, managers in the foodservice and hospitality industries are often afraid to let their staff make decisions, or tackle their own problems. The key to changing this situation is to teach them how to deal with problems, and then empower them to think and act for themselves. If you show them how to solve their own problems, you will build their confidence and their problem resolution skills, while increasing their confidence in dealing with tricky situations.

You will also reduce the number of staff problems you have to manage each and every day. Fewer problems from your staff — isn’t that a nice thought to have!

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