YKK Stories

Fundamental Behavior 17 – Practice blameless problem-solving

April 23, 2021
Author: YKK
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Practice blameless problem solving

The main thing we do at work is solve problems. We come in, start with the most important one, make some progress, hopefully solve it, then we move on to the next one, and repeat. It’s our job to bring our own little piece of the company from an undesirable state to a better one.

So, what does it mean to do our jobs in a “blameless” manner? Usually we think of blaming as pointing a finger at someone or something that was the root cause of the problem. So, is this philosophy telling us to put our heads down and mindlessly fix problems, without looking for the root cause? Are we supposed to ignore where the water leak is coming from, and only focus on mopping up the floor?

All problems have a root cause. It may be one person’s fault. It may be an automated system that failed. When you work backwards and analyze the chain of events, there’s always someone responsible at the start. That system needs to be fixed, or that person needs to understand how their mistake impacted the business. That discovery becomes a teaching moment, and we are all responsible for making sure that the company becomes smarter because of it. Sure, it can be uncomfortable, it can be hard to admit our own mistakes, but we must face the reality. Can you imagine what our business would look like if we ignored the root causes of our major problems?

Here’s the surprising truth: we can’t practice blameless problem solving without going through this very important “blamer phase” first. But I think the key is that we can’t let ourselves get stuck on step one. The whole point of “practice blameless problem solving” is not to ignore the causes of our problems, but to make sure that we move past that initial discovery and actually fix things. The business suffers and we all suffer together until the problem is solved. The problem doesn’t magically go away once the cause has been identified.

It’s easy to get stuck on the “blamer phase.” Investigating a root cause takes a lot of work, time, and effort. It can feel like an accomplishment when you finally find what’s to blame – and it is. But realize at that point we haven’t even touched the problem yet. The water is still leaking – we just know where the burst pipe is now. Nothing has been done to replace the pipe. All you’ve done so far is research. It’s important that you don’t stand there yelling and screaming about the pipe or the plumber or the landlord or whoever’s fault it is. Once you find the root cause, it’s time to move on right away to the “blameless phase” – that’s where problems actually get fixed.

Most of the time at YKK, I think we can identify the cause of our problems pretty well. But our business is complex, it has a lot of moving parts, and the identifying process sometimes takes a lot of time. I’m worried that because of this, we don’t always follow through in the “blameless problem solving” phase like we should. Remember not to get stuck in the “blamer phase.”

Aaron Christensen
Engineering Manager – Latin America
YKK (U.S.A.) Inc.