There’s an old folktale about a village located on a river. One day, a baby came floating down the river and villagers rushed to save the baby from drowning. The next day two, the next three, and so on. Every day the villagers anticipated the problem and rushed to save the babies from the water. Eventually, a leader in the village realized the problem was not getting better and instead of rushing to help the other villagers pull babies out of the river, he waded to side of the river and began the trek upstream. Confused, the villagers asked him where he was going–did he not care about the babies? Without hesitation, he responded he was going up the river to keep the babies from being put in the river in the first place.
Granted, this cute story sounds completely unrealistic and has never actually happened. However, the principles put forth in this folktale are far too familiar for most of us. From manufacturing environments to educational institutions or even to our individual lives, we have each been guilty of being so focused on dealing with consequences that we didn’t take the necessary steps to solve the problem.
In working with organizations, we talk about “Upstream, Midstream, and Downstream” or “People, Process, and Product.” Businesses look at the problems they have in delivering their product or service to their customer and start troubleshooting: “this widget gets scratched 3% of the time in manufacturing, so let’s improve our sorting to catch this defect” or “students aren’t passing their spelling tests, so we need to provide opportunities for retests.” In either of these cases, the course of action may avoid the consequence of unhappy customers or failing students, but neither addresses the actual problem of defective products or students not having the knowledge or skill to pass a test the first time. The proposed solutions are what we consider shoveling trash out of the downstream; they make the best out of a bad situation but don’t actually solve the problem.
Dealing in the midstream would require looking at the processes involved in a business. If the issue is in the manufacturing of a widget, we might want to look at the manufacturing systems—what is happening with the machine that causes the scratch or should we consider using a different material that is less prone to be scratched? If the issue is in education, we may want to consider why the kids are not learning—are there other teaching methodologies that could be used or are there student needs that must be addressed before they will open themselves up to learning (physiological, safety/security, etc.)?
Dealing with the upstream is the most difficult but oftentimes the most effective way of dealing with issues in a business: it’s dealing with the people of the business. This is where we work with individuals to develop the skills similar to the leader in the story—ownership mentality, initiative, problem solving proficiency, etc. With the right people in place, the right processes can be created, which will effectively prevent a situation where customers complain about 3% of a product being defective–the problem would be caught and solved long before the customer sees any product. On the other hand, this may look like a school administrator redistributing resources to determine the particular needs of the students and then find creative solutions to deal with those needs without increasing the budget. As Peter Block says, “The answer to ‘How?’ is always ‘Yes!’” The problem for many organizations, though, is there are not enough people asking the question of “How?”