Day One Problems

Jim Fuller is a great performance consultant with a couple of fine books to his credit.  He also played a key role in getting performance consulting functioning within Hewlett-Packard.  It was also Jim who introduced me to the concept of a “Day One Problem.”

A “Day One Problem” is a situation where things have never worked from day one.  It’s an engine that never ran, the customer fulfillment process that was mixed up from the start, the sales department that never met quota, or the team that was always substandard with their work products.  Why do we care about whether or not a problem is a “Day One Problem” or not?

As performance consultants, we analyze problems before we act.  If the organization used to be successful at one point (the sales department met quota, the engine purred, the fulfillment program won customer praise, and so on), then our analysis is easier.  We can try to determine when things went wrong and then trace back—what contributed or happened that led to breakdown?  As easy as this sounds, clients usually miss this.  When you’re surrounded by the work, you’re often too close to the problem to realize “hey, when we hired Jeff to run Sales six months ago, that’s when retention issues started in the admin department”.

Additionally, one of the quick ways to do performance analysis is to identify exemplars—people who get it right and do it well.  Their examples can guide us in why others fail and how to right the ship.

But a “Day One Problem” is different.  With a “Day One Problem” things have never functioned, they’ve never worked.  There are probably no complete exemplars (someone who does the job well), the exemplars are likely to be examples of piecemeal work (a sales rep who can’t close but does superb market research).

Additionally, with a “Day One Problem” root cause analysis is a lot trickier.  You often analyze a specific problem only to uncover another underlying problem and then a problem underneath that one and so on.  The example I sometimes use to explain this concept to new performance consultants is a car bought at auction.  Imagine you managed to score an almost new Ferrari for a ridiculously low fee at a government auction of property reposed from drug criminals.  The catch is that you can’t test the car to see if it runs.  You have it towed home, put the keys in and you get a clicking sound (which tells you the battery is dead).  You replace the battery with a new one, insert the key again and the gas gauge doesn’t move (which suggests the gas tank is empty).  You fill the tank with gas, the engine turns over but misfires (suggesting that the timing is off).  You have a mechanic replace the timing belt.  When you go to restart the car, you discover the gas gauge doesn’t move again.  After testing it you discover it’s empty—there’s a hole in the tank and the gas you put in drained out.

There was no way for you to go in and fix everything all at once.  That’s because you didn’t know that some of these functions (leaking gas tank or timing belt) were issues until you had fixed other problems first.  By fixing one problem (which you thought would allow the car to run) you only discovered an underlying problem (that wasn’t obviously until you’d fixed the first problem).  If you’d been the original owner and had noticed that the gas levels seemed to drop even without driving the car, you might have suspected a leaky tank.  If it misfired and wouldn’t run, you might have narrowed the problem down to a timing belt (even before the battery went dead on you).  You could have taken the car to a mechanic and said “fix these five problems.”  But because this was effectively a “Day One Problem” for you (the car had never run for you—it had never worked) you could work to get it running only to discover other problems (not obvious from the start).

So, there are a couple of lessons about “Day One Problems”.  If you’re a new performance consultant starting out on your first project, if at all avoid a “Day One Problem” because it may turn out to be too complex, too resource intensive and too demanding for a new performer with little credibility and political capital to have a decent change at completing the job.  If you have to wear many hats, you might want to avoid a “Day One Problem” because of how much attention it may demand of you.   Conversely, “Day One Problems” are the kinds of issues that organizations are most likely to misdiagnose and throw dogma and bias at—which is where a systematic performance analysis can sort through some of the crap and superficial assumptions about the problem.