No matter how smart you are as a leader, how strong your communications are or how organized you believe your system is, it will be impossible for you, your insights or your solutions to be everywhere at all times. Planning is essential, but solving problems in real time and close to the work has been shown to be a major factor in building an efficient, high-quality and safe environment for both your customers and your staff.

How do you build a culture that inspires individuals to make the right decisions and head in the right directions to solve problems on their own but in a manner consistent with your plans?


First you need clarity of expectations through the staff’s eyes … clarity not only around the executive table, but in the hearts and minds of frontline staff. This clarity of expectations begins with a clear statement of your organization’s purpose.

What is it that brings everyone to work each day? (Roy Spence says, “It’s not what you sell. It’s what you stand for.”) Pay checks are fine, but rarely are they inspirational.

With your purpose clearly defined, then envision where you want to go. What will success look and feel like?

Equally important, you need a set of values that will serve as a roadmap for how to get there. These values will guide how you will treat each other and those you serve. These values apply to everyone; allowing no exceptions for leaders will help build trust and credibility.

We cannot expect our staff to guess what we are thinking, where we want to go or how we want to get there. Your organization’s purpose, vision and values need to be a part of every recruitment, orientation, training and performance evaluation, because they are a key to building and sustaining a culture that will allow staff to solve problems independently.


The next major ingredient is trust. Staff members need to trust the leadership. They need to believe that the expectations you have laid out for the organization are 100% where the organization is going and how all the staff members are going to get there.

Steven R. Covey (“Speed of Trust”) would argue that nothing will be more important to the function of your organization than trust. Trust is built by communication from leadership that staff members perceive as clear, crisp and personal. Trust also is built when senior leaders maintain a consistent presence close to the work, thereby demonstrating to staff members that they know what the work really is.

Leadership training also is crucial, to make it clear that leaders are there to serve the staff and the customers — that they do not function as mere rules police. A leader needs to be seen as someone who builds the staff, not someone who just checks boxes on whether he or she performed or did not perform a task.

Holding staff accountable is looking backward; being responsible for their success is looking forward. Efficient, excellent performance will occur with a balance of the two that leans hard toward looking forward.


The last of the three keys to building a culture of problem-solvers is giving staff members tools that are clear, usable and appropriate for their work environment.

Complex changes that occur regularly with insufficient support will lead to confusion, lack of trust and less efficient progress. Giving staff tools with which they can engage — tools that help them tie their work to the purpose of the organization and are supported by the leadership — builds trust, improves efficiency and results in stronger long-term outcomes.

One example comes from lean management systems, now widely used across healthcare (see “On the Mend” by John Toussaint) to build teams that can solve their problems locally, close to the work.

One of the tools that can be taught to staff members of any educational background is the A3. Using the A3, staff members describe the current state, identify road blocks to improvement and participate in a discussion about ideal outcomes. Staff members love being asked their opinions and sharing their ideas in a format that results in measurable change.

Tools like this promote staff engagement, provide solutions from people close to the work and show staff that we clearly are working toward our goals in a manner consistent with our organizational values. This is an opportunity for leaders to listen, gain insight and build a team that will solve problems steadily and consistently on their own.

These three keys — clarity of expectations, trustable leadership and appropriate tools — can help you build a work environment that will improve your organization’s recruitment, retention, efficiency and effectiveness.

Jeff Thompson, M.D., is the author of Lead True: Live Your Values, Build Your People, Inspire Your Community (ForbesBooks, 2017). He is CEO emeritus and executive adviser to the Gundersen Health System. 

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