Debra Swersky
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System Solving

Over the summer I was asked to document my philosophy on problem solving. It was a super-charged writing assignment that took me back to my Artist’s Way days. Ten pages of thoughts were edited down to a cool, crisp, and (hopefully) articulate 1-page response - with some help, of course. With my approach documented, I can safely say that it was not an easy assignment. I did, however, appreciate the opportunity to put pen-to-paper on it. 

At my new gig, I did my best to onboard myself (per usual at a startup) and teach myself the systems needed to do my job. The problem that I ran into was just that: systems to do my job. There wasn’t one… or was there? It was here that I started asking the critical questions which I recalled from Maggie Bayless, creator of ZingTrain, Zingerman’s training facility. 

1. Is there a system in place, agreed upon and documented, that works if accurately followed?
2. Is there a system in place that the employees know how to use, but it is not being followed?
3. Is there a system in place, but employees don’t really know what it is or how to use it?

Work was clearly being accomplished. Everyone generally knew what to do, when to do it, how to do it, and (of course) why it was being done. And the work was well done, so the process wasn’t necessarily the problem. But… how was I, completely new to the organization, supposed to know what was going on?! This is what I needed to know as a newbie entering the company and the person tasked with managing the work to be done and helping to scale the business. 

When Maggie asks these questions of an organization preparing to train a new team member, Maggie is looking to understand if the system that the team is working with needs to be changed, if management needs to be empowered to implement and enforce the system, or if the employees working with the system need to be trained. 

My challenge for week one was to dig into my company and understand the systems in place, the people who use (and enforce) them, and the company’s capacity to learn a new system. 

The team had, over the course of its history, used, tested, and implemented many systems. But had not stuck with one global system to manage their work. Consistently they ran into the same problem: a system needed to be easy to use, configured appropriately, and managed. (Keyword there: managed… that’s where I came in!)

And so I got to work and channeled the management advice from British conductor, Charles Hazelwood (surprising, right?): Extraordinary managers unlock ideas in others versus impose their own. His advice was given in the context of an orchestra and “Trusting The Ensemble” from his TED Talk. But, I took the advice in the context of designing a system. This past week it was my job to create a system that I would manage based off of the ideas of my colleagues versus my own. 

So I hunkered down with my problem solving philosophy to define the problem, focused on solving the problem by making the lives of my colleagues better (and easier!), and pursued as much feedback as possible to integrate into the system for my first week on the job. So far, so good. Stay tuned for implementation!

Debra Swersky