I am currently waist deep in a broad ranged process transformation effort with a very recognizable brand, and this company has the most passionate staff I have ever encountered. We are in the beginning of a diagnosis phase in our methodology, and we are asking for stories about processes to identify where the process in place falls short.

I never want a diagnosis session to turn into an airing of grievances, but people tend to make their stories personal. A few times during our diagnostic processes, the passion of the people involved combined with the personal nature of their stories has led to tales of processes gone awry.  A challenge in consulting is to pull the root cause out of a story without allowing the truth to be obscured by embellishment.

I follow these basic steps when I evaluate stories:

  1. Assess Risk – Sometimes the risk of something out of ordinary is low enough and the risk it represents is small enough that you just have to let it go. Bad things happen. Sometimes process can prevent it, but what is the cost to the organization vs. the risk it represents?
  2. Determine Repeatability - If this risk is great enough, did it happen more than once? Do the conditions still exist that it could still happen again? If so, you’re going to have to dig a little deeper.
  3. Identify Measures – If it can happen again, how will you know when and how often it happens? This is especially difficult in something that you want to measure in terms of cost avoidance, since the measure is the lack of an occurrence.
  4. Find the Triggers – Most people tell stories in a linear way from beginning to end. Look at the story and try to find what went wrong first. If you can identify and address the initial trigger, then subsequent triggers may be irrelevant. A good way to get someone to self identify triggers is to ask them “what would you do differently?” If someone remembers a story vividly, chances are he or she has spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to prevent the problem from happening.

Sometimes a story is just a story, but stories can also be parables that tell exactly what we need to know and what to do about it. An expert will be able to find the truth in the tale.