In business, problems are an inevitability. No company ever sails completely smoothly to success. In the life sciences and elsewhere, companies often fail to step back to understand their own problems and their own situation as well as they should. Because of this, people often develop an overly simplistic view of their company’s problems and then implement solutions that are designed to merely treat the symptoms of a deeper underlying problem. Without recognizing and fixing the root cause of your company’s problems, the symptoms are certain to manifest again.
Let’s take an example. Life science company X is having a problem with half its sales force missing sales targets. On the surface, this very well may look like a problem with sales personnel. After all, if the half of the sales force is meeting expectations, why can’t the rest? The company may be keen to implement a solution which directly targets the manifestation of the problem – perhaps reprimanding the under-performing personnel or increasing incentives for those who meet performance. Would these solutions treat the problem? They very well may, especially if the cause was with sales personnel motivation, but if not these fixes will be an inefficient solution that will fail to alleviate the symptom or address the underlying problem. The problem may be in marketing and the sales force is simply not able to compensate for poor quality marketing or a lack of sufficient marketing. The problem may be in quality and the customer is just not receptive of the product as a result. Alternatively, perhaps the problem lies in the sales force’s training or a lack of technical sales support. Perhaps there are multiple causes. For the purposes of this example it doesn’t actually matter what the problem is, but you can see how one problem could have a wide variety of underlying causes.
So what can you do about this?
Before you can “do” anything, you need to ensure that you fully understand your company’s operations. What processes feed into other processes, and which have a secondary effect on others? How do these processes fit into the tasks, strategies, and goals of your company? (Answering these questions alone can reveal problems, many of which you may not have even been trying to find.) What feeds into the problem area? Once you know the answer to those questions, you can go about analyzing where the problem is originating.
Finding the cause of a problem is not a simple process, but you have one key ally in your search: information. Gather information from as many relevant sources as possible. This often involves getting input from your employees, and it may also involve gathering feedback from your customers. It could be quantitative data from business metrics. Whatever the appropriate sources, just remember that information is your friends. Different perspectives are also helpful, as they may have different views on the cause of the problem.
Any hunt for the cause of a problem should be scaled to the severity of the problem – a minor problem isn’t worth a major effort – but regardless the above guidelines can help you identify the problems in your company. Solutions that fix the cause of problems instead of treating the effects are longer lasting, more efficient, and critical to ensuring the long-term success of your company.