Problem solving starts with questions

In any business, there will always be problems to solve. Depending on who you are, a problem can be a gigantic headache to one person, and an incredible opportunity for another.

I was speaking with a business leader the other day about the company they work for and because of the lack of trust they had within the group, there was constant finger pointing, defend-the-castle type attitudes, and practically zero communication between the teams.

When everyone is too busy playing the blame game, nothing gets accomplished.

In this article, let’s zoom out for a bit and get some distance to see how leaders and teams can work together to solve problems.

Your Team

First, let’s establish the notion that you hired the right people. Are they competent?

Is part of the problem the fact that you aren’t staffing correctly? Maybe your training program needs an overhaul?

Qualified staff members are fully capable of solving their own problems if they are empowered for that role. So let me ask you, what makes them qualified?

When you feel that you have to step in to fix something that might be great for your ego, but for a competent staff that deflates their ability to champion their own solutions.

Regardless of the problem, start with asking more questions:

  • “Help me understand the problem here.”
  • “What have you tried so far?”
  • “What do you think the next step should be?”

Your employees are usually smarter and more capable than you think. It’s easy to play the role of the “boss” and jump in. The problem with that is it creates a “Mother may I” scenario where you don’t have anyone on your team that feels they have the ability to solve problems so they bring you EVERYTHING to solve.

Problem Patterns

In your shop, are constantly seeing the same challenge pop up? Stop and take a minute to see if you can find a pattern that could be traced back to the origin.

Think of your workflow as a river. Usually, the answer to the problem question can be found upstream from the actual challenge. Without trying to embarrass or blame anyone, start asking “Why” a lot.

“Why did this happen?” You are looking for the root cause of the issue.

For example, a pinhole in one of your screens could be traced back to how you clean and degrease your screens in reclaiming, or even lint on the glass of the exposure unit.

While it is fairly easy to stop the press and crawl underneath to tape it up, a much better investment in time is in build a better process in the screen room so that the root cause of the pinhole is eliminated.

Don’t focus on the problem. Focus on what causes the problem.

Responsibility and Accountability

The lack of responsibility and accountability in your business will always drive more problems. There has to be infrastructure, procedures, and processes for people to follow.

When there aren’t, people simply make up the rules in their head about what is the right thing to do. Even worse, is when there are rules, but they are confusing or maybe even not enforced.

People need clarity.

  • What does success look like?
  • How long should it take?
  • Where do I go for answers?
  • Who do I ask for help?
  • What is the next step?

Also, sometimes people run into ambiguous situations where they need to make their own judgment call. What if it flies in the face of some rule or procedure, but solves the problem? Do they get into trouble?

I’m a big believer in accountability and that the tiger has to have some teeth. However, there are circumstances where enforcing something looks nitpicky. Rules can change.

Successful outcomes are what is needed.

Are YOU the Problem?

As the owner or leader in the business sometimes it is hard to imagine the the source of the problem could be, in fact, you.

That’s right. I’m calling you out.

I’ve learned this lesson a few times in my career. It is humbling.

Of course, you want things to go smoothly, be handled with quality, at the lowest possible cost. Every time you start barking orders and getting your staff hustling to do something doesn’t necessarily mean that whatever you say is the best solution. It just means that you are in charge and that your crew can follow orders.

Maybe the recurring problem in your shop is you. Ut oh.

Here’s an example. Quite a long time ago, I spent a few hours trying to hunt down a few dozen shirts for an order. They were checked in correctly, received, and staged by a press to run on a job.

Except when it came time to work on that order they didn’t have enough shirts. We searched for quite a bit with other orders, similar jobs, and even ran the tape on the cameras to see if someone had stolen them.

It turned out that the owner of the shop grabbed them for a pet project he was doing and didn’t order replacements. He forgot.

Problems Are Opportunities

I hate to tell you this, but you are going to have another problem. It is inevitable.

But when this problem occurs, I want you to look at it completely differently.

  • Don’t jump in and solve it. Let another team member take a stab at it. Grow your leadership team.
  • See if you can trace it back to the origin. Don’t put a band-aid on the cut. Stop the injury from happening in the first place.
  • Ask “How could we use this in our training?”
  • Does this problem happen often? Ask “Why?”
  • What if the problem originates with a particular customer, employee, process, equipment, garment, or consumable? What should the next steps be in preventing it from happening again?
  • Are you keeping track of problems on a dashboard or spreadsheet? What can you learn?

Your takeaway today is that your biggest leadership opportunities are always nestled in with how you solve problems.

Leadership isn’t telling you what to do, it’s elevating and developing talent and skill so others can solve the problem or prevent it from occurring in the first place.


“It always seems impossible until it is done.” – Nelson Mandela

“It’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate.” – Jocko Willink

“Problems are not stop signs, they are guidelines.” – Robert H. Schuller