Innovation - Get to the root of the problem


Like a mechanical soothsayer, Norman used all of his senses to gauge the situation. Smoke pluming from the 1973 Hillman Avenger was in synchronisation with the rattling engine. He drew in a breath, partly to sense what the engine was burning and partly as a sharp intake of breath at what his grandson had done to this engine. The engine bonnet aloft, Norman bent down and removed the oil filler cap. The creamy residue inside it was a tell-tale sign of oil mixing with water, whispering to Norman that the cylinder head gasket had been damaged. Time to strip down the engine.

For those of you who are not mechanically minded, you may be wondering what a broken 1973 Hillman Avenger has to do with leadership and innovation. Well the Avenger is not the focus of innovation. Norman is. Let me tell you more.

Norman, was my grandad and I was the offending grandson who had broken his mum’s Hillman Avenger. Norman was an engineer by trade and was used to fixing things and one thing that he knew was not to take the first or most obvious reason for a problem. He knew always to dig deep and keep asking questions

  • What is working?

  • What is not working?

  • What are the signs and symptoms?

  • What different things might be causing it?

  • Is there anything deeper, not so obvious, that might be an underlying problem?

Norman knew engines, the grease on his overalls bearing testimony to that. He knew that the combination of the colour of the smoke and the distinctive rattling of the engine told him it had multiple problems, more than just the obvious from the creamy coated oil filler cap. Before long he had the engine stripped down and drew up a list of problems. Just as he considered a range of problems, he then set about considering a range of possible solutions.

This is a real story. As an 18 year old I managed to blow the head gasket, damage the engine big end shells and damage two piston rings. Now that is a list that most of us don’t understand. The point here is, if Norman had just gone for fixing the obvious problem and then put the engine back together, then it still wouldn’t have solved the problem. It’s a real story, but it acts as a great metaphor for this stage of innovation.

When we are innovating for our organisations we need to consider what are the possible issues in order to consider the possible solutions. Let me give you two examples.

Customer return rate to a company is low. In fact the complaint rate is higher than the return rate. When you investigate, it seems that the customer service experience is poor and it looks like Jean, who deals with the customers on the phone doesn’t know the products and is abrupt in her manner. So the obvious problem is Jean. But actually the problem is deeper. The problem is the recruitment process is poor and not enough rigour in finding the right staff. The problem is that staff are not clear on the purpose and values of the company. Staff training products and customer management is poor too. The innovation needed is not getting rid of Jean. Because if you do that and follow the same recruitment and training you will just end up with Jean mark 2. The innovation needed is on better recruitment, vision& values induction and customer service training.

You’re a primary school leader. You are looking at some science work on investigative science and when you look at books and planning it seems that there is a really poor quality, particularly with Jim and Doreen who are teachers in two of the classes. The obvious issue is Jim and Doreen. But it is deeper than that. Digging deeper and asking some questions of staff it becomes more apparent that staff are unclear of what needs to be taught in each year group and are unclear about strategies to teach scientific investigation. Innovation that is needed is a skills progression map and some high quality professional development of all staff on teaching these skills.

As we know from previous blogs, there are two stages to innovating. Review and Design.

Review

  • Purpose – Why you are doing it and what you are trying to achieve

  • Problem – What is best practice? What are your shortfalls? What are you trying to solve?

  • Pinpoint – What does your customer actually need?

Design

  • Possibilities – What different things could solve the problem or meet the need?

  • Prioritise – Which of these ideas will best solve the problem.

Getting clear on the issue that sits at the root of the problem is crucial before you move onto the design stage or you will end up not actually innovating to solve the right problem.

What are you facing at the moment? At the time of writing this blog, we are in the midst of the Coronavirus. Innovation is needed to help business survive and to help schools operate when it is safe to do so and in a way that is safe. Taking time to really get to the root of an issue, really understand it will help you then look at the possibilities to improve and innovate.

To help you, use Norman’s questions:

  • What is working?

  • What is not working?

  • What are the signs and symptoms?

  • What different things might be causing it?

  • Is there anything deeper, not so obvious, that might be an underlying problem?

Everyday Leader inspires and equips everyday people to see themselves as leaders. We can offer coaching, training and consultancy, both online and socially distanced face to face. Let us know if you would like a no obligation chat about innovation or developing your leadership. colin@everydayleader.co.uk

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