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  • Wtp

    by Noel Ward, Editor@Large

    What do you do when things go sideways? What does your team do? Who decides? And how do people feel when it’s all over? Successful? Or maybe like everyone just dodged a bullet?

    When things don’t go according to plan, there are usually a few people in any organization who fall apart, operating under a policy that goes something like, “when wracked by fear, or deep in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.” Meanwhile, cooler heads usually prevail and things (again usually) work out okay.

    Work the Problem
    Other times the approach comes from experience: when you’ve seen enough things go wrong you assume you will get through the next crisis. That “seat of the pants” approach can work but it is not the ideal way to handle uncertain situations. A more seasoned approach is one that’s pounded into members of NASA and is part of astronaut training. It’s called “Work the Problem.”

    You probably remember the movie Apollo 13 where Ed Harris, the actor playing mission control leader Gene Kranz said, “Failure is not an option.” But he also told everyone to calm down and “work the problem.” So what did he mean, and how does it apply to the challenges you may face in your printing business? Being able to remain calm and work rationally helps ensure that even the worst problems can have a positive outcome. But you need to have a strategy in place.

    There are 8 pieces to the Work the Problem approach. Feel free and insert challenges your company has faced in going through the following points:
    1. Define the problem: what’s really going on here and why is it bad?
    2. Determine goals/objectives: what is our desired result?
    3. Generate an array of alternative solutions: what are some ways to achieve that result?
    4. Evaluate the possible consequences of each solution: Which options can work? Or don’t/won’t/can’t?
    5. Use this analysis to choose one or more courses of action: Decide which option(s) make sense to pursue.
    6. Plan the implementation: How can you put the chosen option(s) into action?
    7. Implement with full commitment: Basically, go for it.
    8. Adapt as needed based on incoming data: Change your plan as needed to accomplish the goal.

    These may seem like Management 101 to many business owners, so they are not much considered in the press of day-to-day business. Yet, they form the foundation of a structure that can help a business survive a host of operational, competitive and even financial challenges, assuming the management team remains calm and focuses on achieving a successful resolution to the problem.

    I didn’t know Work the Problem was ingrained in the DNA of NASA until I read An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, by astronaut Chris Hadfield, who at one point wound up as mission commander on the International Space Station. When things go wrong on the station —which is apparently fairly common—the crews implement a Work the Problem strategy. After all, they can’t call AAA for a tow, or zip out to Home Depot for spare parts. As Hadfield put it, “We have to come up with answers that won’t kill us.” Ahh, yeah. No pressure there. So they work through the above points and come up with a way to solve the problem with whatever they have on hand.

    Hope for the best, plan for the worst
    OK, the challenges on your shop floor, even when a certain customer can be easily mistaken for a velociraptor, probably aren’t life or death situations, but planning how to cope with the unexpected can make all the difference when things go wrong.

    Start thinking about some of your more memorable “all hands on deck” instances you’ve had over the past year or two. How did you address them? What could have been done better? How well was the situation managed? Jot down some answers so you have some baseline thoughts.

    Next, pull in your lead team members, such as department heads, floor supervisors, shift managers. Maybe call in press operators and pre-press people, too. Even if you’ve already done a post mortem on the event, ask them again for their input on those past instances and capture it all on white boards (or however you capture group input at your company). Then introduce them to the Work the Problem concept and ask for their input on how it might be used to address inevitable future moments when things go awry. After two or three meetings you should be able to create a general framework for how you and your team can Work the Problem the next time one comes up.

    Doing this can yield a couple of things. First, you may gain a more reasoned approach to handling future problems, and second you may be able to prevent them from happening to begin with. OK, I know most print providers have various policies and procedures in place that can help keep the trains running on time even when the tracks aren’t all where they should be. And if your plans are already bulletproof, all the better. But I know for certain that not all shops have solid plans and that the reaction to many problems is panic mode. Most get by, but panicking is never fun and is no way to address a problem

    When you and your team adapt a Work the Problem approach you are able to look at difficulties more calmly and rationally. And when the next bad day is over, a big benefit is likely to be more team unity and satisfaction than there was when all you did was luck out and dodge a bullet.
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