Dave Conrad: Look at the pieces and the whole

Dear Dave:At my Rochester company, we are encouraged to find and take care of big problems. What drives me nuts are the small, nagging problems. I know that, taking care of big things is important, but how can I, my manager and my coworkers start focusing on the small things, too? —R

Dear R:I believe big problems usually are a system and conglomeration of numerous small problems. For example, a company may find that their most talented employees are leaving the company at a fast pace and, when breaking that problem down in to 'bite-size' pieces, managers find many factors, such as lack of growth opportunities, lack of motivation, or even dislike for certain managers.

We can identify the big problem, but we really need to take care of the elements contributing to the big problem, either one-by-one or simultaneously. This calls for a factor analysis of sorts and everything related to the main problem -- large or small -- must be put on the table for evaluation.

I'm reminded of the saying, "A chain is only as strong as its weakest link." Accordingly, every 'link' in the problem chain must be checked for strength and functionality. I guess what I am saying -- stay with me here -- the organization must sell the idea to employees of looking both at the whole and the pieces at the same time.

A doctor does not look at one aspect of our health in isolation; rather he or she looks at the entirety of our physical – and possibly – mental state of affairs. The doctor knows that one aspect 'out of whack' (not a medical term) can derail our general health.


That's why we continuously hear our doctors telling us to eat right, exercise and lose some weight -- at least I do. These are individual problems and challenges that, if addressed, will improve my general health.

In the same fashion, an organization's health is dependent on how we take care of the various pieces. An honest and searching assessment of the organization will result in the revelation of many health issues, including big things such as cultural and quality problems, or smaller, aggravating things -- to your point -- such as running out of supplies, people not responding to messages, or even ineffective meetings.

As my wife always tells me, "Look beyond the end of your nose." With this in mind, we need to keep our eyes open to "look at the house and the individual rooms" at the same time. This is a type of thinking managers must model, support and teach.

We are surrounded by systems, not convenient, straight, linear paths of cause and effect. We need to look at the impact of one thing on another and how adjusting -- or not adjusting -- one thing may totally disable or enhance something else.

For instance, the failure of a high school student may not be because of lack of study; it may be because of the stresses a student is experiencing, or even a lack of family support. At work, the dysfunctional nature of an employee may not be because of a 'bad attitude'; rather, it could involve many things such as antagonistic coworkers, a lack of job skills, or fear and insecurity.

Managers set the example. If employees see managers thinking systemically, they also may do the same. If they see managers solving those "nagging small problems" quickly and completely, and not just be on a march to save the universe, they, too, may follow suit. It then becomes the way "things are done."

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