When you are under fire or don’t want to be under fire – Problem Solving

When you are under fire or don’t want to be under fire – Problem Solving


In the Middle Ages, it was popular to search for the Holy Grail. The Holy Grail was considered as a magical artifact to solve all the problems and guarantee eternal life. In the business of today, many leaders and researchers try to answer the question what company attribute would safeguard existence and expansion. Is it being the biggest? Is it being the most innovative? Is it to possess the most recognizable brand? Is it to have the biggest market share? Or to have the most loyal customers? Or to compete on the highest quality? None of them. History shows that top companies in the above-mentioned categories stood no chance and eventually went into bankruptcy.

Pan Am, the biggest in its sector for years. Nokia, possessing the biggest market share and the most loyal customers. Lehman Brothers as the most innovative bank in its 150 years of existence. Compaq, expanding faster than its archrival with superior quality products. Or Pontiac, the mostly recognizable brand in its time. All of them have two things in common. They do not exist anymore. And all of them ignored… problem solving.


Many companies do not solve problems. Quite often they ignore problems by sweeping them under the carpet. Others love to debate on the problems for ages believing that the problem discussed is the problem solved. We know the term ‘firefighting’. It is not addressing a problem at a source. There are two other superficial approaches to problems identified. Applying blindly the measures that were effective in the past when solving other problems (‘let’s standardize’), or simply moving the problem to somebody else’s desk. Problems are like a virus. They love to go underground. They love to grow in the darkness and ignorance. And finally, they love to explode and erupt (see: Illustration No. 1 below).


There are companies that cultivate the art of problem solving. Surprisingly, that competence helps them to exit any crisis stronger. A great example to reflect upon is the Peak Oil Crisis in 2008. Sales figures dropped by 40% in 2009 vs. 2008. ‘Detroit Big Three’ (General Motors, Chrysler, Ford) acted in panic: closing plants, terminating many projects, freezing R&D, massive lay-offs and huge assets sold off. Only in the USA over 300 thousand employees in the automotive sector received a termination letter. The only company that acted counter-intuitively was Toyota. They intensified Problem Solving training, workshops, and initiatives. Their Board of Directors started a structured deep Discussion on reasons, root causes explaining why this oil crisis impacted them, and how to be better prepared for any crises in the future. They did not dismiss anyone, closed any factory, or cut R&D investments, but kept recognizing profit and maintaining positive cash flow. As a result of the intensive and massive Problem-Solving Workshops in their flag factory in Kentucky, they recognized 2 million USD savings in 2009.


Clariant GBS is a rather young organization in the SSC sector with just more than 7 years in business history. In 2018, GBS leaders decided that all employees should be professional problem solvers. The Structured Problem-Solving program commenced with an aspiration to create higher value for the whole organization. Clariant GBS was not free from typical reactions to the problematic issues. The organization openly admitted that approaches such as problem ignorance, problem debate, firefighting, blind copypaste of past solutions, and ‘selling’ the problem to other colleagues or teams occurred in the organization. GBS acted in a mature way to recognize and admit the situation as it was. Even if the baseline was recognized, it was not easy to mobilize and motivate employees to participate in GBS Structured Problem Solving. In particular to practice and solve real problems based on the methodology, with rhythm and rigor. People around the world love their comfort zone, love to be trained, and to get a certificate for the training, but to engage individually, to commit to something serious and difficult, to be monitored, assessed – not so much. Majority of business organizations failed in highly desirable and excellent ideas because they did not challenge the mindset. Clariant GBS decided not to repeat that common mistake. The mindset change in Clariant GBS organization was achieved through three mechanisms put together and synchronized like in a Swiss watch.


In a traditional approach, leaders set goals, organize resources, motivate, and control. In the GBS Structured Problem-Solving Program, the change started from the leaders: top and middle level. Of course, it did not go smoothly or ideally from the beginning. Some leaders embraced the change and decided to be role models. Typical change agent behavior. Other leaders followed the first ones. There were and still are leaders who occupy the observer's position and offer multiple excuses not to walk the talk. But the gravity of leading by example was becoming significantly bigger year by year.

There is a statement often repeated in the Lean community that the hero's path does not work. You need a system (ancient Romans used to say: serva ordinem et ordo servabit te [1]. The Opex/Lean Team in Clariant GBS developed, tested, and implemented multiple schemes like: SPS Mentorship program, Dojo-Kata-Kumite laboratories, SPS Coaching Model, SPS Practitioner certification (provided when an individual successfully delivers two real problem-solving cases). And many new ones are in the pipeline (see illustration no. 2 below).

People love to repeat that communication is key. In the GBS SPS Program, communication was based on full transparency. Every employee can see in PowerBI reports how he/she, other individuals, teams, departments, locations and the whole GBS progresses against the targets. Everybody has access to any SPS case OnePager to be inspired, to learn from successes and failures. All SPS cases are traced in the system by applying the aging perspective for Not Started Yet or Delayed in any phase of the case. As the ancient Romans loved to say: finis coronat opus [2], the success of the SPS program in Clariant GBS is measured by facts and figures. In 2018 when the program was kicked off, there were just a few SPS cases delivered. In 2019 when the scope included basically middle management, there were ca. 40 cases. In 2020 all levels engaged, and the yearly result was 98. Last year, 2020 ended with 170. The aspiration for 2022 goes far beyond 200.


We observe that problem solving practice and habits are valued not only in the business environment. In today’s military training, there are quite intensive trainings, and simulations on problem solving. US Special Forces are practicing After Action Review (AAR) which is nothing else but Lessons Learned or ‘hansei’ in project management or Lean.

Psychologists recommend problem solving exercises with real or simulated cases as the best recipe for our brains and emotions, in particular in pandemic times, when people often stay and act in isolation. Problem solving is indispensable and will never become obsolete. You may be top one in anything. Like Pan Am, Nokia, Lehman Brothers, etc. But if you do not cultivate Problem Solving, the next challenge or crisis may hurt you badly. On the contrary, as Clariant GBS decided strategically and seriously 4 years ago, each challenge, or even a big crisis can make you stronger. Because you are a Professional Problem Solver.

[1] Keep the rule and the rule will save you.

[2] The end crowns the work.

Author: Krzysztof Drozd

Senior Project Manager, Clariant Global Business Services