Jerry Osteryoung: Find the cause of the problem before you try to fix it

September 27, 2013 

It isn't that they can't see the solution. It is that they can't see the problem.

-- G. K. Chester

I was working with the owner of a very successful service company. They had been in business a long time but were now having problems with the head of their HR department submitting late reports and missing deadlines. Additionally, they were not receiving all of the HR training the laws require.

The owner valued this employee and did not want her to leave, so he decided to hire someone to help. He assumed it was a workload issue and figured getting her some help would fix the issue.

When the owner asked me what I thought about their problem, I told them that he was trying to fix a problem that he had not yet identified. Instead of just throwing another worker at the problem, they needed to determine the root cause of the HR manager's performance issues. To help them with this, I recommended they hire a consultant to come in and do an in-depth analysis.

During the analysis they discovered that the HR manager had another job and she was using some

of this company's time to work on her other responsibilities. Because of this, her work at this company had deteriorated. Now that they knew what the real situation was, they were able to address the problem without having to hire another worker.

In another case, an entrepreneur was having a revenue problem -- or so he thought. His sales had been on a continual decline and his cash flow was becoming critical.

The entrepreneur had decided that advertising was the solution and was about to spend a bunch of money -- which was very limited -- on a new advertising campaign when one of his employees suggested that their bookkeeper might be stealing. After an in-depth investigation, they discovered that the bookkeeper had, in fact, stolen more than $300,000 over the last three years.

So often, managers and business owners assume they know how to solve every problem simply because they have had many years of experience. However, experience often leads to decisions that worked in the past, and past decisions are not always applicable in the current environment.

In order to avoid mistakes like these entrepreneurs were about to make, it is so important that you do not rush to judgment. Instead, ask yourself the following questions to help define the real problem:

1. Are you sure that you have identified the appropriate problem?

2. What makes you sure that you have defined the problem correctly?

3. Is this a symptom of the problem or the root cause?

4. Is there more than one problem to be solved in this situation?

5. Are there other people who can verify you have defined the problem correctly?

Now go out and make sure that you have identified your problem correctly before implementing any solutions.

Jerry Osteryoung, a consultant to businesses, is the Jim Moran professor of entrepreneurship (emeritus) and professor of finance (emeritus) at Florida State University. He can be reached by email at jerry.osteryoung@gmail.com.

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