Solve Problems, Not Symptoms

By Russ Holdstein     Add your comments

A good entrepreneur doesn’t waste time on the symptoms, but digs to the root of problems, and makes the changes where they make the most difference.

Are you solving symptoms?

No matter how good a problem solver you are, nor how hard you work, you’ll end up in trouble if you spend your time solving symptoms. I know I nearly lost my company by trying to solve symptoms that I thought were problems.

Everything seemed to be going well at Payday, the payroll service company that I founded and headed. We had just been named to the INC 500 list of the fastest growing privately held companies in the U.S. and everyone was telling me what a great success I was. That was when everything began to go wrong.

Things that had worked well for years simply stopped working. The computer system had a series of seemingly unrelated crashes, the accounting department couldn’t get accurate reports out on time, the sales staff was experiencing high turnover. So we worked hard at solving what looked like major problems.

But it wasn’t until more and more things continued to go wrong that I finally realized that we were only solving symptoms. The real problem was that we were a company that had grown but not evolved. We had simply done more of what got us successful without ever asking if it was still the right way to run a much larger business.

Symptom or Problem?

It is not easy to determine when a problem is only a problem to be solved and forgotten and when it is a symptom of deeper trouble.

Try this deceptively simple exercise to distinguish symptoms from true problems. Ask a series of three whys. First ask why this problem occurred in the first place. Identify the immediate condition that created the problem.

That’s where most people stop. They identify what looks like the cause of the problem and they “fix” it. But you have to go farther. Ask why again. Why did the situation that caused the problem exist in the first place?

Once you have a good answer to this second why, ask why a third time. The answer to this third why will probably identify the real problem.

At Payday, when the computer system went down and stayed down for several days we went to a backup site and continued our work while the technicians figured out what the “problem” was and solved it. When a similar failure happened a few months later, we did the same thing.

We should have looked past the immediate cause of the system failure and asked why that cause existed to begin with. If we had asked that second why, we would have realized that our computer systems department was understaffed, poorly organized and poorly led.

Had we asked the third why, we would have realized that our senior management team was not doing its job – we had not changed our management style so that we could effectively run a much larger company. We could have dealt with the real reason our computer system was failing and changed our management style (or our management team) before it was nearly too late.

© 2008, Russell S. Holdstein. All rights reserved

Add Your Comment

(not published)