Treat the Cause not the Symptom

I was working with an engineering company last year, let’s call them Engineering-4-U to retain their anonymity, and they maintained a large team of highly-trained engineers to service and maintain their customers’ equipment throughout the UK.  The team worked long hours with lots of travelling required, but their pay and conditions weren’t great.

I was asked by the Chief Engineer, Fred, to help with a problem they had – their engineers were leaving to join their competitors.  Fred said that the senior management had framed the problem as “Why are our competitors stealing our engineers?” and had then set about implementing a solution to that problem.  Unfortunately, as no-one had bothered to speak to the engineers to root out the cause of their leaving, the “solution” that had been dreamt up had not only failed to solve the problem, it had made matters worse.  I did some digging…

Each new Engineers-4-U 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 late arrivals on-site, more disgruntled customers.  Unfortunately, as the senior management team couldn’t be bothered to get off their backsides and communicate with the engineers, they went for the expedient solution of treating the symptom rather than the cause.

In this case, the most visible symptom was that Engineers-4-U’s 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 senior management saw were “customer complaints” causing them (the senior management) pain.  Thus, they focussed on their own pain and how to stop it rather than the root cause of the customers’ complaints; insufficient engineers.

Their knee-jerk response to stop their own pain was to change the engineers’ contracts to require them to give three months’ notice!  No negotiation had taken place, but a solution had been implemented or rather imposed, and remarkably some of the senior managers had been very pleased with themselves for their ingenuity.  Well, until the rate at which the time-served engineers were leaving increased!

Now, I don’t know about you, but my first question would have been “Why are our engineers leaving?”  And the answer to that question can only be determined by actually talking to the engineers themselves.  It’s called “management communication”.

Good business owners, and good managers, make decisions based on facts rather than supposition and guesswork.  Poor managers make snap decisions based on “gut-reaction”, or trapped wind, as it is otherwise known!  Don’t make snap decisions; they’ll come back and bite you.  Discuss with the people closest to the problem and make sure that when you solve the problem, you are solving the cause and not the symptom.