The previous article in this CS Manager series focused on creating a set of measurements and data points to track your department’s performance. This article builds on that concept by discussing what to do when your department’s performance is not meeting expectations.

So you’ve got a problem and you know what it is. What do you do about it? For many managers, the natural inclination is to call the staff together for a meeting, discuss the problem and tell everyone to focus on making it better. Often, with this increased amount of attention to the issue, the problem goes away ….for a while. But after a few weeks (maybe months), the problem comes back. You start the cycle again. As a manager, wouldn’t you rather solve the problem for good? You can! But only if you think and act systemically.

The key to permanently fixing an issue is focusing on changing the process that creates (or allows the existence of) the issue in the first place. Said a different way, without definitely changing any steps in the process, results should not be expected to change. One example would be if your team struggles with on-time availability of instrumentation due to last-minute delivery of vendor equipment. To fix this issue, a process change could be put in place that requires equipment to be dropped off 24-48 hours in advance of the procedure. In this case, you as the manager should appropriately be spending your time making sure that this policy is being followed, and NOT spending your time performing the herculean efforts needed to rapidly process trays that are dropped off late.

Note that process improvements don’t make the work of managing go away—after all, you are in the management position for a reason! Rather, the job of the manager is to spend time and effort on the things that ensure repeatable, positive outcomes (and not on activities that just mitigate the negative effects of chronic issues).

The key to thinking (and acting) like a systemic problem solver is to ask yourself the following question when faced with an issue: “What could I change that would eliminate this problem from occurring?”. Notice that this question is not: “How can I solve this problem?”. Designing systemic fixes and then implementing them creates the kind of lasting quality improvements that a point-in-time focus cannot. And leading your department to long lasting, repeatable fixes is a hallmark of manager effectiveness.