By Fred Nickols

A Puzzle Solved
A paper I wrote titled A Puzzle Solved describes a situation in which a sales manager asked me to look into a situation that was puzzling her. The request was more or less informal and had nothing to do with the project on which I was working. To shorten a long story, the situation involved a top-performing sales rep who would inexplicably call in sick in the middle of a hot streak of sales. It turns out the sales rep was managing his income based on differences in the way commissions and sick time were paid. You can read more about that in the paper I mentioned.

The point to be made here is that “A Puzzle Solved” is an instance of the kind of situation I call “What’s going on here?” which, as that question and the example above imply, involves a typically informal request to make sense out of a puzzling situation. The aim is to clarify, to develop an understanding of the situation, not necessarily to take action. Whether or not the situation is problematic remains to be seen, as does any requirement for further action.

I have had several of these “Could you look into this?” requests over the course of my consulting career. The “sick time” puzzle was just one of them. Allow me to describe a few more.

“Oh, By the Way…”
I had been engaged to develop a set of algorithm-based job aids and associated training for a sizable population of people at a large bank whose work involved resolving claims for lost or stolen traveler’s checks. The fellow who brought me in said, “Oh, by the way, if you come across any opportunities for improvement, be sure to let me know.”

The employees in question all worked in cubicles and did their work at a computer terminal. It seemed rather obvious that any time away from the terminal was time away from work, and, at one point, we set out to find out how much time they spent away from their workstations. Unobtrusive observations yielding time samples were made, and the results were startling: The claims examiners were spending roughly 40 percent of their time away from their workstations. That 40 percent was about evenly divided between (1) time spent trotting back and forth to their supervisor’s desk to obtain approval for a proposed resolution of a claim and (2) time spent standing in line at a big, new copy machine (which had replaced numerous small ones previously scattered about the workplace). To again cut to the chase, the authorization levels for the examiners were increased and the small copy machines were reinstalled throughout the work area. Time away from station dropped dramatically and productivity went up.

“Could You Look Into This, Please?”
I was doing some work for AT&T Long Lines, the long distance arm of pre-divestiture AT&T, when my client and one of his colleagues approached me with a sensitive request. It seems a female computer programmer was under scrutiny because she was taking much longer than her male counterparts to reach the point of compiling the mainframe programs she wrote. My client asked me if I could look into the matter–discreetly, of course–and get back to him and his colleague. I did and what I found turned out to be quite surprising. First off, her total time to develop a program was on a par with her male colleagues. However, she spent a much larger percentage of that total time in writing and rewriting her code. Her male colleagues spent much less time writing and rewriting and turned to compiling and de-bugging as quickly as possible. They were using compiling as a quick and easy way of de-bugging the programs they had written. Her programs, by contrast, were de-bugged through extensive review and rewriting and they typically compiled on the very first attempt. The comparison between the female programmer and her male colleagues is illustrated in the simplified diagram below.


Back then, compile time on the computer was quite expensive. Consequently, the female programmer was far more cost-effective than her male colleagues because she used much less in the way of compile time. Needless to say, all concerned stopped looking askance at her and started trying to get her male colleagues to be more like her.

How Far Did Those Rounds Go?
Perhaps the earliest and most significant of these “What’s going on here?” situations occurred during my Navy days, long before I knew much of anything about training and human performance, and it was me who was asking the question.

My ship was providing gunfire support for troops ashore in Vietnam and, in the course of one mission, the spotter came up with an unusual request. He asked us to “throw” a round as far down the gun target line as we could. Without boring you with how that was done, we obliged him and he was overjoyed with the result, immediately requesting several more rounds. Afterward, I asked my fire control officer to get the coordinates for our position at the time and for where the rounds were landing so we could check the distance. To my surprise, the rounds were landing well beyond the supposed maximum range of my weapons system. “What’s going on here?” I wondered. After a sleepless night, I found a fundamental flaw in the design of the computer at the heart of the weapons system. That led to a temporary workaround and later a more lasting fix in the form of a fleet-wide modification to the computer that controlled the gun mounts.

Some Things in Common
What do these little stories have in common? What lessons are to be learned from them? What points are to be made? Well, from my perspective, there appear to be five things that all the stories have in common:

  1. Curiosity
  2. Situation-specific knowledge
  3. Relevant know-how
  4. Access
  5. Authority to investigate

Curiosity played a role in all of the stories–mine or someone else’s. There was a desire to know what was going on. In all five situations, I can point to situation-specific knowledge. This is best illustrated by the gunnery system story where, as the technician in charge of the gunfire control system, I definitely had specific knowledge of that system. Also marking these five stories is relevant know-how. In the case of the sales rep calling in sick, it was my know-how related to analyzing and understanding human behavior; specifically, the fact that human behavior serves to control certain variables. In the sales rep’s case, what was being controlled was his paycheck. Perhaps unnoticed are the next two factors: access and authority. In all cases, I had legitimate access to people and information related to the situation. Perhaps most important, I also had the authority to investigate the situation, to look into it, to figure out what was going on. Without it, I would have been sticking my nose where it did not belong, which is rarely a wise thing to do. These five things, then, were and are prerequisites or necessary conditions for a successful investigation. The preceding discussion is captured in the diagram below.


Figuring Out “What’s going on here?” Is What We Do
Much of what we performance improvement professionals do is ad hoc, off-the-books, or on the side, so to speak. This is especially true when we start out with a training assignment. These off-the-books efforts are value-added, to use a trite term, but add value they do, often of a considerable nature. Getting a fix on the situation is also the first step in any formal engagement, training or otherwise. In the last analysis, that is what we knowledge workers do, we investigate, then we intervene; we figure out what is going on and, on most occasions, we then do something about it. To get started, we have to answer the question, “What’s going on here?”

NickolsFAbout the Author
Fred Nickols, CPT, is a performance improvement professional and the managing partner of Distance Consulting LLC. He is a longtime member of ISPI and a frequent contributor to its various publications. He can be contacted at or on his website at Connect with Fred and read his posts on LinkedIn at Follow Fred on Twitter at