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Tackle Problems Effectively: Learn From Mistakes I Made

One owner confides how she improved her management when she had to troubleshoot a botched customer order.
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Last week, a series of disasters hit my company: a 20,000-piece order was due to a very large customer. First, the boxes went missing in transit for seven days. When they finally arrived from China, we opened them to quality check the merchandise and found that some of the packaging did not close correctly. Already pressed for time because of the delayed delivery, and trying desperately to resolve the issue with minimal impact on the customer, we sprang into problem-solving mode. That's when I was reminded about why problem solving quickly is not always the best policy.

As a small business owner, I have a tendency to move quickly, and focus on action more often than reflection. But this time, once the chaos cleared and the pieces were sent on their way, I was able to put in place a better structure for problem management than the one we previously had. Here's what happened and the lessons I learned:

Find out the full scope of a problem before trying to solve it. 

Twenty thousand pieces of one earring arrived in sub-standard packaging. The mistake was going to require gluing twenty thousand packages to make sure they were retail ready. We only had four days to fix the problem, and two of those were on the weekend. We quickly tested that the glue would work, and called in extra helpers to take pieces home or provide help in the office. However, we did not test (as we should have) how long it would really take to fix each package, or incorporate the slow down rate due to fatigue that would occur after a few hundred were completed.  We also did not anticipate how bulky the pieces were to move, which impacted how many pieces could be taken home at a time, because only so many boxes could really fit in the cars transporting them for the weekend work. Had we stopped to really evaluate the problem in its entirety, we would have known that we needed either more time, or more people in order to deliver in the time we had.

Think through your solution completely before implementing it. 

In our haste to start gluing the packages, we did not have time to test which of the two extra-strong glues worked best. The result was that several hours into the gluing process, we discovered that one of the glues reacted with the plastic of the packages and caused the color to change, which meant that all the packages glued by the wrong glue were no longer usable. In addition, we found as we moved forward that some of the packages were so badly warped that even gluing them could not fix them. This meant more last-minute communication to the customer, and more scrambling to reorganize the quantities that were in good condition to be able to get the maximum amount of merchandise to each warehouse. 

Don't point fingers while a problem is being resolved. 

When something goes wrong, natural instinct is to get upset about the situation and start blaming someone. As we were working through the different waves of the problem and the ensuing solutions, there were lots of moments when I wanted to yell, but I held back and focused all my energy on getting the task accomplished, despite the additional speed bumps which could have been avoided: two boxes of packages missed getting glued when we had extra labor available, for instance, and counting processes did not go as smoothly as they could have. Instead of losing my cool, I simply made mental notes about where the process broke down, instances where teaching needed to happen and did not, and ways the solution could have been less rocky--and could be next time. 

Debrief as soon as the problem is resolved.

Make time to take stock of how the problem was handled to make things smoother the next time. The day after the merchandise shipped, I called the various heads of the team who had been in charge of the problem and asked each one to describe all the specific things that went wrong at every stage of the process. From there, we backtracked and identified ways to avoid each incident. Luckily, we all took responsibility. Now each member of the team has the tools to better evaluate and respond successfully the next time an unforeseen challenge arises.

Last updated: Oct 29, 2012

VANESSA MERIT NORNBERG | President, Metal Mafia

In 2004, Vanessa Merit Nornberg opened Metal Mafia, a wholesale body and costume jewelry company that sells to more than 5,000 specialty shops and retail chains in 23 countries. Metal Mafia was an Inc. 500 company in 2009.




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