Turning ‘Who’ Into ‘How’

Basic tips to stop finger-pointing and start problem solving

by Kenneth Thomas

This article was featured in January 2016’s Best Of Back to Basics edition.

 "It’s your fault!" Or, "Things got messed up because of the finance department!"

How many times have you heard something similar to this? When things go wrong, we are quick to assign blame or point fingers. According to Rodger Talbert in his article, "The Blame Game," "People can become so preoccupied with placing blame that they lose sight of problem resolution. This leads to continued failure."1

When things go wrong, the goal should be to move away from trying to determine "who" was at fault and quickly transition into a problem-solving mindset of "how" to make things better.

Getting past the "who"

At times, many organizations have difficulty moving past the "who," and, as a result, resources are wasted and costs increase. The time and brainpower expended in conducting the search for the responsible party could be better used in brainstorming solutions to the problem. To facilitate a quick move into the problem-solving phase, it is recommended that those involved in the failure step up and take responsibility.

This action is easier said than done. In W. Edwards Deming’s book, Out of the Crisis, one of the 14 points of management is to, "Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company."2 For this to work, the organizational culture must promote open and honest communication, and recognize that people are human. Mistakes, as well as bad choices, will occur from time to time.

In her article, "Admitting When You’re Wrong," Tamara E. Holmes advises, "Telling colleagues you’ve made a mistake is sometimes the best course of action."3 She suggests taking the following steps:

  1. Admit the error.
  2. Request guidance.
  3. Step up and repair.
  4. Learn from mistakes.

The person responsible for making the error must quickly step up and admit the mistake, regardless of its size or importance. Additionally, the operating climate should encourage all employees, from executives down, to be courageous and take responsibility for their actions. This will likely result in a reduction in the secondary problems associated with attempting to assign blame, such as loss of trust, bickering and loss of synergy.

Getting to the "how"

With the "who" behind us, we can now determine "how" to go about solving the problem. To determine how to solve problems, you must first clearly define the problems and identify any root causes. You will find that a fishbone or Ishikawa diagram is a powerful tool, and when used properly, it will help you drill down to the potential root cause of a problem.

The use of a five whys exercise can also be helpful. After the root cause is identified, tools such as the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle, Six Sigma and lean can be used for problem solving and continuous improvement. 

To develop a fishbone diagram or conduct a five whys analysis, it is often effective to bring all stakeholders together to brainstorm and share ideas. To benefit from the creativity sparked by a successful brainstorming session, certain ground rules should be established and communicated to the group. Recommended ground rules include:

  • One person speaks while all others listen.
  • Everyone gets a chance to speak.
  • There are no "dumb" ideas.
  • No one person will be allowed to dominate the discussion.
  • Agree to disagree.

While there is no guarantee that conducting a brainstorming session will lead to the 100% perfect solution to a problem, the probability of making better, more rational decisions is increased when you tap into the creativity of others and involve relevant stakeholders in the decision-making process.

Further, by acknowledging the fact that it is not important "who" made the error, but "how" the error can be corrected, you improve your chances of solving problems in the most economical and timely manner possible.


  1. Rodger Talbert, "The Blame Game," Industrial Paint & Powder, May 2005, p. 4.
  2. W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis, MIT Press, August 2000, p. 23.
  3. Tamara E. Holmes, "Admitting When You’re Wrong," Black Enterprise, Vol. 37, No. 10, May 2007, p. 124.

Kenneth Thomas is a process engineer and quality assurance manager with Engineering Solutions and Products Inc. in Killeen, TX. He earned an MBA in organizational psychology and development, and operations management from American Intercontinental University. An ASQ senior member, Thomas is a certified Six Sigma Master Black Belt, an ASQ-certified quality engineer and a Project Management Institute-certified associate in project management.

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