2017-10-09 Issue 18 Fundamental Behavior 17 – Practice Blameless Problem Solving
Doesn’t it make you angry when something goes wrong and some people take great delight in saying, “I told you this wouldn’t work.” Sometimes they whisper those words; other times they take great pride in blurting it out for everyone to hear, often to the embarrassment of someone in particular. They’re the same people who say everything won’t work, so from time to time they just happen to be right. But their negativity doesn’t add anything of value to the discussion or to the process of actually solving the problem.
We face problems every day and we seek input from other people who are knowledgeable about the problem and/or will be impacted by the problem or the solution. Good leaders (and I consider everyone to be a leader) seek input from others. But eventually, someone has to make a decision on how best to solve the problem. And when the decision has been made, we all need to support the decision. If our first attempt fails to solve the problem, then we should learn from our mistakes and move on to another solution. But nothing is gained by playing the blame game.
There is always value in discussing why problems happened or why a solution we tried didn’t work. That’s how we can keep from making the same mistakes or from trying the same things over and over again. This healthy process should not be confused with assigning blame. Blameless problem-solving seeks to identify all elements of the problem as well as the steps that were taken in attempting a solution. Then we move forward, looking through the windshield rather than through the rearview mirror.
This Fundamental Behavior is connected to our first Core Value, “Do not fear failure. Experience builds success. Create opportunities for employees.” Part of not fearing failure is to be willing to take risks, and to learn from our mistakes — and not repeat them — when things go wrong. So if something bad happens, it is essential that we begin with an analysis of what went wrong. But our motivation is to use the lessons learned from our mistake so that we can come up with a better solution. Assessing blame is not part of that equation. When I am on a problem-solving mission, I like to say that I am simply seeking the truth. One aspect of this approach to problem-solving is that if we all are trying out best but simply fail in one of our attempts, we should unhesitatingly be willing to explain why we did what we did. Then everyone can learn from that attempt, and we can move forward.
Our transparent, blameless problem-solving approach is at work all around us, yielding excellent results. When we face a big problem, the solution is neither easy nor is it obvious, so it requires a team effort to gather the pertinent information and determine an appropriate course of action. If people around us are fearful about being blamed for their mistakes, then decisions are delayed and our company starts moving in the wrong direction. People will stop making decisions as they determine that their safest course of action is to do nothing. I recently read that “Doing nothing is always the safest course of action in a bureaucracy.” We do not want to act like a bureaucracy.
Vice Chairman Mel Sarumaru tells a very interesting story about when he was new to YKK in Japan. He was sent to the United States to resolve a quality claim issue with a U.S. garment manufacturer. He was very pleased to find that the customer was quite fond of YKK’s products and service. After a brief discussion, the customer offered a very reasonable settlement which the young Mr. Sarumaru quickly accepted. After Mr. Sarumaru returned to Japan, however, someone senior to him chastised him, saying, “You did not have authorization to agree to a settlement amount.” Fortunately, Mr. Nishizaki, who was the very top of the international business, quickly stepped in and said that he had fully authorized Mr. Sarumaru to settle the dispute. That ended the discussion, as Mr. Nishizaki was the ultimate authority. In essence, Mr. Nishizaki was saying, “Stop playing the blame game.” Recently, Mr. Sarumaru said that he will never forget how Mr. Nishizaki had stepped in and supported him (even though he really did not have the authorization!). Mr. Sarumaru said that he hopes that in his career he has shown others the support Mr. Nishizaki showed him. There are lots of lessons in this story for us all.
In summary, if we all practice blameless problem-solving, and try our very best every day, then our work environment and our corporate culture can be enjoyable and extremely productive.
Chairman and CEO
YKK Corporation of America