Monday, March 9, 2009

Technical Support Done Right

I often joke that, unlike in college, I face problems where the answer is not in the back of the book. Technical Support Done Right, as described below, focuses on how I  find a way to solving a problem through 
  • Subject Matter Knowledge
  • Ownership and 
  • Tenacity.

Tech Support, as it is generally defined, implies giving information to a customer so they can resolve the problem. But that is not how I look at it. That definition lacks a certain quality that is critical to my own definition of Technical Support, the ability to solve problems. When you look at it from the perspective of solving problems, the definition takes on an enhanced meaning. Problem Solving means active participation in the problem until it is fixed. A minor difference? Not at all. In my mind, a Problem Solver needs to have a spirit of can-do in every case. This spirit is not just wishful thinking, but it is based on my multiple successful experiences making things work in a variety of environments.

Subject Matter Knowledge

So, as a Problem Solver I see a problem or "challenge" and I think "I have fixed many similar to this one before" and "I can certainly fix this one, too!". This makes me as a Problem Solver an optimist, not in the sense of blind optimism, but in the sense that my experience and training, combined with an attitude of "can-do" provides the tenacity to try different solutions until a successful outcome is achieved.


Problem Solver also means taking ownership of a problem. The word "ownership" is abused via overuse, and is usually just lip service. However, for those who actually practice ownership, it is truly empowering. "I am assisting a customer" generally does not create ownership. Thinking that this is my problem to solve moves me towards action. This is an element often ignored in Tech Support organizations. 

Lack of ownership manifests itself as passing the buck. I have been copied on too many tech support emails requesting my help with a support problem which are really just a form of passing the buck to me under the guise of "he is more knowledgeable". If a company had a rule that said "if you have to ask others for help, then you don't belong here", there would be a lot less people dumping their problems on others. Oftentimes the problems are hard and cause people to do hard work, which most people avoid. Work is hard, especially problem solving.  If work was easy, they would call it "tennis".


So what does Problem Solving look like in practice? My own experience is that total immersion in a problem is not only required, it is the only way to be sure of success. I become very creative and, because I feel ownership, I start finding resources that help to resolve the problem. It is up to me as the Tech Support person to find the resources even if it is not immediately apparently what those resources are.

I often find that the biggest problem can be finding the information to help solve the problem! That is where tenacity is vital. Tech support must be tenacious in searching and researching solutions, finding others who are knowledgeable for information or blogs or other internet resources that have solved similar problems. My experience is that you make your own luck. When I dig and dig, I get lucky and find relevant information. You really don't need to know where to dig. It is the digging that is critical to finding an answer.

So, when I am solving some problem, my strategy looks a lot like this:

  • I have Google open in multiple windows to search for clues
  • The customer computer systems is visible in another window (Sametime, WebEx or GoTo Meeting, for example)
  • My own personal test computer system in a third window (every problem solver should have a dedicated system for testing ideas)
  • Additionally, I have any email or KnowledgeBase information open
  • One or more IM chat windows with other staffers who have similar experience.

So, think of it like "Who wants to be a millionaire". We chase the solution with the tenacity of a contestant close to the ultimate prize, we use 50/50 split to eliminate options, we "shout out" to a friend, and use all of our collected knowledge.

So, the elements of problem solving are:
  • Subject Matter Knowledge
  • Ownership of the Problem
  • Attitude of "Can-Do"
  • Tenacity when dealing with obstacles
  • Tapping into others who have similar experiences and knowledge
  • Never Quitting until there is a Solution

In my way, the job of "Tech Support" is not a dreary road, but actually a game show played by one. The prize isn't one million dollars, but I sure feel like a million dollars once I have figured it out!

Frank Paolino manages Technical Support at

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Kaizen in Medical Care

Tom Daschle is now the Health Care czar. His ideas are laid out in his book "What we can do about the Health Care Crisis". A key aspect of this his approach is a "Federal Health Advisory Board", an innocuous sounding idea that is effectively a governing board of allowable medical procedures. It looks like a cost-savings approach to increasing health care costs. In truth, it is a powerful approach that will effectively stop payments to physicians for any procedure that is not approved by the Board.

This is not Health-Care Rationing. It is significantly worse than that. This is anti-Kaizen for healthcare. This is "no improvement" for health care, locking down treatment and limiting future health care developments. Sound unbelievable? Let me prove it to you with a little thought experiment, which I will call "It’s a Wonderful Life”: Picture the year 1950, just after the end of WWII. If we had a Daschle-esque plan implemented, with allowable care guidelines listed, creative people (physicians, University professors, pharmaceuticals and affiliated hospitals and the businesses that fund them) would have stopped innovating as their products and procedures would not be "allowed" to be purchased.

With medical care frozen in 1950, we would have polio with us today. Anyone who can remember this knows what a scourge it was, and how it ruined many good people. 

  • Jonas Salk would have invented the vaccine in 1952, but he never got the funding to continue his research.
  • CT scanners were not invented by Hounsfield and Comack and they did not win a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1979.
  • The MRI was not developed in the 1970s. 
  • The birth control pill was not invented in 1952.
  • Artery stents were never invented. 
  • Cholesterol reducering drugs do not exist. 
  • Genentech did not develop synthetic insulin in 1980 to help diabetics.

Fast forward to today, in 2009, we do not have thousands of drugs, life savings procedures and knowledge. The list would be all the innovations of the last 50 years. Scary?
Well, with 1950s Daschle-care, we will never see some of the innovations that are being discussed, as funding for new ventures will dry up. If anyone thinks government can invent these items, they deserve the future they are going to get. His plan should be called "No more Health Care improvements. We have all the medical procedures we need".

So you see, even though the current health care system needs a lot of Kaizen to keep improving it, the wrong answer is to freeze it in the name of controlling costs. The right answer is to find ways to allow life saving innovation to continue, so we don't end up with 2009 healthcare in the year 2050.