What part of the problem are you solving?

What role are you playing in problem solving?

Businesses are a bit like sporting teams: players are in different positions and provide their unique ‘value-add’ to the team. When individuals fulfil their designated role while supporting each other, the team has a greater chance of winning. This also applies in the business world. Employees should be clear about their role and the value they provide to the business, whether they have a frontline role, a senior management position or work at a middle management or supervisory level.

However many organisations suffer from “problem compression”. This is where multiple levels of the organisation are spending time on the same problem without fulfilling their required role in the process. A simple representation of shown below.


So what’s wrong with this? Shouldn’t each level of management support their employees to solve problems? Yes they should, just like players are encouraged to support each other on the field. However each level, or job family, needs to understand what they can and should be contributing to the solution.

Let’s take a common frontline problem. A Customer Service employee is dealing with an unhappy customer who has received the right product, on time, but it’s the wrong colour. The employee escalates the problem to her supervisor to authorise the cost of an express courier so that they can deliver the right product to the customer that day. “What!?” The Supervisor says, “Not again! Just make sure the courier gets there today so we hit our same- day delivery target!”

At the end of the month, when the Supervisor reports the on-time delivery figures to senior management, the results are good: He has hit 99%, above the 98% annual KPI. The Manager congratulates the Supervisor on a job well done.

So what’s the problem? The customer is satisfied because they have quickly received the right product and the Supervisor has hit his KPI.

This is true. But let us consider a better approach:

The Customer Service employee still addresses the customer’s problem as quickly as possible. But rather than get on with business, she performs some initial analysis. This could be as simple as checking the original order document to confirm that the error didn’t occur when the product was ordered. Let’s assume that the order was as the customer requested, yet they later received the wrong product. The employee both documents this and reports it to her Supervisor.

The Supervisor then determines whether this is a one-off issue or part of a systemic problem. How many other mistakes have occurred in the packing or delivery divisions of the business over the last few months? Is there an adverse trend? Has anything changed to bring this about? Could this be a process problem, a staff capability problem or an IT system problem?

A Supervisor’s role is to understand and address the root cause so that the same problem does not occur again because of the same reason. This is the part they need to play on the team to ensure the business wins. So what’s the Manager’s role here? In the previous example, the Manager was satisfied that the Supervisor had exceeded his same-day delivery target KPI. However, in the current example, the Manager notices that although the on-time delivery targets are consistently being met, the express courier costs are climbing. The Manager sets a target to reduce express courier costs by 75% within three months. As well as setting the new KPI he asks the Supervisor why an express courier service is being used so frequently. The Supervisor responds by breaking down the costs into major categories: ‘wrong product’, ‘defective product’ and ‘wrong colour’. The Manager asks the Supervisor to investigate and address the wrong product and wrong colour issue. The Manager plays his role on the team by following up with the supplier to investigate and address the ‘defective product’ issue.


Key questions for each level
Manager Level

  • Have I taken responsibility for the management level problem?
  • Are the KPIs driving the right behaviours?
  • Is there a pattern across the business?
Supervisor Level

  • Have I investigated the issue to determine whether it is a one-off or a systemic issue?
  • Have I identified and addressed the root cause of the problem?
Frontline Employee Level

  • Have I addressed the customer’s concern?
  • Have I reported (and recorded) the problem?
  • Have I done some initial analysis?

Just like good sporting teams, where players carry out their responsibilities during a game, the second example demonstrates how each employee can contribute to resolving the problem within the scope of their control. The Frontline employee, the Supervisor and the Manager all take ownership for the part of the problem that applies to their role, rather than the level above ‘watching’ what the level below is doing.


Every business encounters problems. The measure of an effective organisation is how quickly and effectively problems are addressed and analysed by the right players to prevent them from happening again. Results are more immediate and long-lasting because root causes are identified and addressed at multiple levels.

Just like a good sporting team, when each team member plays his role, the business has a better chance of winning.



  1. Are any problems continually recurring within your business?
  2. Are your employees encouraged to identify and escalate problems?
  3. Do your employees understand how to define and analyse problems so that the root causes nncan be identified and addressed?
  4. Are KPIs broken down into meaningful sub-KPIs so that they drive the right employee nnbehaviours?


Team Problem Solving is a continuous improvement consultancy focused on delivering bottom line results by developing people, processes and systems.