Treating the symptom not the cause usually fails

A few years ago, I was working with a high-tech equipment company, let’s call them Hightech Ltd that maintained a large team of highly-trained engineers to service and maintain their equipment throughout the UK.  The team worked hard with long hours and lots of travelling required.  Although Hightech Ltd is publicly-listed and successful, the engineers’ pay and conditions were not the best in the industry.

As I happened to be on-site helping them implement a management system, the Operations Director asked for my help in dealing with a problem that they were facing – the engineers kept leaving to join the competitors.  I was told by one earnest senior manager that they had put in place a solution, but the problem hadn’t been solved; in fact, it had got worse.

Now, each new Hightech Ltd engineer took at least a month to recruit and three months to train, which meant that when one engineer left, the others were asked to ‘cover’ for the best part of the next four months.  More work, more stress, more disgruntled customers.

Unfortunately, the management team were disconnected from the workforce as Pillar One (Management Review and Communication) of the Five Pillars of Quality was not in place; one of the reasons that Flintloque was asked to assist with a management system implementation in the first place.  The presence of this disconnect led to an absence of understanding of the cause of the problem; the senior management team had therefore focussed on the symptom.

The most visible symptom was that their customers were complaining about not receiving a good service (due to insufficient engineers and coverage) and therefore the managers were spending their time ‘fighting fires’ instead of running their departments efficiently.  What they saw was “customer complaints” causing them (the senior management) pain.  Thus, they focussed on their own pain rather than the root cause of the customers’ complaints.

I suggested that an effective system of management review and communication (Pillar One) would help to solve their problems and that it would be sensible to:

  • meet with the engineers to discuss the situation (review)
  • determine the nature of the problem from the engineers’ perspective (analyse)
  • offer an upgraded remuneration package (to stem the tide of leavers) in return for, let’s say, flexible hours (negotiate/communicate)
  • maintain a pool of employees whose main role was not engineering, but who were trained to do the job, and could be called on if/when necessary (resolve).

When I asked which of these measures they had tried in their solution, I was faced with blank looks.  Somewhat sheepishly, the Managing Director explained that no meeting had been held with the engineers, so the underlying reason for them leaving hadn’t been determined (remarkably, one of the senior managers suggested that it was “lack of loyalty”!) and so no negotiation had taken place.  But a solution had been implemented or rather imposed: they’d changed the engineers’ contracts to require them to give three months’ notice!

As a result of poor management communication, the solution looked to cure the ‘symptom’ (when an engineer leaves, it causes the managers problems) rather than treat the cause (engineer morale was low), and worse, it compounded the problem of what the engineers saw as ‘management not listening’ to them; dead right, they weren’t!  Result – the rate of attrition within the time-served engineers actually increased.

The good news is that, in fairly short order, we put in place management meetings at all levels within the organisation (Pillar One: Management Review and Communication) providing the organisation with a system that linked the senior management to the people working at the customer interface.  Problems that arose could then be escalated effectively and efficient solutions communicated back down the line with the minimum of delay and misunderstanding.  Ten months later, the company passed its ISO 9001 assessment and the senior managers now focus their time and effort managing their departments rather than coping with problems.