Not just complaining

Fry complainingMany years ago in a previous job, a situation arose that was frustrating to a lot of people. It was a process that occurred at the beginning of every semester, and It slowed things down and generally wreaked havoc on a couple hundred people each semester. That was only about one percent of our total user base, but it wasn’t the same one percent and the one percent certainly talked to the rest of the 99%. We and our system gained a reputation for not working and preventing people from getting their work done effectively. People complained. People in our department complained. But no one seemed to be doing anything about it. Basically, as is typical when a complex system isn’t working, everyone involved pointed fingers at everyone else.

It was true that no one person or piece of the puzzle was the sole cause of the problem. Basically, a lot of people had inherited ways of doing things and kept doing them that way without critically examining whether the ways things were being done was working well. And because we’re talking an IT situation, many people were holed up in small rooms and didn’t want to talk to people in order to fix the problem. So I did.

My part of the problem was that I was the public face of it. When things went wrong, I was the one whom people called to fix it. It wasn’t hard to fix and it didn’t take much time, really, but when faced with hundreds of fixes, I began to realize that all my time at the start of every semester was being taken up with fixing this problem. I basically couldn’t leave my desk for up to a week. And so, I started talking to people. The problem spanned several areas and multiple institutions. It took really understanding the process and stepping back a bit to be able to see some possible solutions. And the solution wasn’t entirely technical. It involved convincing some people to change how they were doing things and in some cases, creating entirely new processes.

I don’t remember now what the solution was, but it worked and the semester after we implemented it, the number of complaints about the problem decreased from a few hundred to a mere handful.

I learned a lot from solving that problem. First, I learned that if you complain about something, you should see if you can fix it rather than just complaining. People had been complaining about this for a couple of years and no one had bothered to address the root of the complaint. Second, I learned that everything is a team effort. No one person is going to solve complex problems by themselves. I got ideas from the people involved and I proposed ideas myself and people tried them out and ultimately, we all came to a solution together. I didn’t do this by myself. Third, I learned that what is often seen as a technical problem is really a people problem. I can’t tell you how many times since I’ve had to explain this to people. Because so many view technology and software as a black box, they assume the problem lies within the black box and not with the people managing the box or the processes we’ve put in place.  Depending on the people involved and how many, this is either a relief to people or a disappointment. Changing people is harder than changing technology.

I continue to approach complaints this way. I take them seriously and I look for a root cause. Not all complaints can be remedied. Sometimes they’re just too complex or the cost to remedy the situation is too high, but it’s always worth trying. Even if all you can do is make small improvements, it’s better than just complaining.

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