Jason Lengstorf

Dirt Floors: How to Stop Putting Out Fires and Solve the Real Problem

What do dirt floors have to do with going to school? And what does any of that have to do with working more effectively?

Jason Lengstorf
written by Jason Lengstorf

In every company I’ve ever worked with, there’s a paradox: everyone seems to want to do things that make the product (or service) better, yet the work to actually do that never seems to get done.

This isn’t because everyone in the company is incompetent.

In my experience, the problem is rarely incompetence. Instead, the problem stems from leadership missing the Big Problems and burning all available time and energy chasing little problems — which are really just the visible symptoms of the Big Problems.

Leaves on dirt.

Credit: Wes Hicks

What do dirt floors have to do with skipping school?

Let me veer off into a seemingly unrelated story to illustrate a point: imagine you’re tasked with getting kids to show up to school. If we approach this from a standard business angle, we might start by looking at the education system: is the curriculum engaging? Are the kids being supported? Can we incentivize attendance somehow? Maybe we should look at the buses and other transportation?

And if those efforts failed to improve attendance, we might throw up our hands and call the kids unreachable, or blame their parents and community: “Look, we tried! These kids just don’t want to learn! These people don’t value education!”

The schools, though, are only one part of a much more complex system. The kids going to school are part of a community, and that community is impacted by countless other variables that aren’t visible within the context of the schools themselves.

However, if we take a step back and look at the system as a whole we might start asking different questions:

Do these kids want to be in school? (They do.)

Why are they missing school? (They’re sick.)

If we slow down to ask questions before trying to fix the problem, we can see that the problem we actually need to solve is different than what we assumed at the start. This starts a deeper line of questioning.

Why are these kids sick? (They have parasitic worms and other infections.)

Why do they have worms? (They live in houses with dirt floors.)

Through this line of questioning, we’ve discovered a deeper problem. And it leads to a solution that might seem nonsensical at first: “if we want more kids to attend school, we need to address the dirt floors in their houses.”

But the data supports this: deworming children reduces absenteeism at school by about 25%, and replacing dirt floors with cement reduces parasitic infestations by 78%.

Where are the dirt floors in our projects?

In my experience, every organization has at least one “dirt floor” problem.

When I was a front-end architect at IBM, my team was supposed to be improving the performance of several problematic UIs. As we started our research, we realized that there was more than just front-end development involved: our teams were burning a huge amount of time and energy struggling with seemingly unrelated tasks — by the time they got to performance tuning, they were already stressed out, exhausted, and up against looming deadlines.

We couldn’t just say, “Hey, team, focus on performance!” They would agree with that — we all knew performance was what we’d agreed to prioritize. However, after spending multiple days fighting with all the unrelated-but-unavoidable work, there just wasn’t enough time or energy left to do the job properly.

Before we could fix our performance problems, we needed to fix our dirt floors. We built a few small, internal utilities to remove that frustration: a one-click configuration tool for development environments, a helper library that eliminated a bunch of busywork, an improved data layer to make it easier to understand what was going on.

Once we fixed the dirt floors, we started making incredible progress on timelines that seemed bureaucratically impossible.

By dedicating time to correcting the underlying problems, we went from every developer in the organization wasting multiple days setting up their development environment, to a couple developers spending a week building helper tools.

We slowed down, fixed the root problem, and as a result saw sweeping improvements across our entire organization. Our developers were able to actually focus on the performance of their project, and other teams were able to work on their actual goals instead of yak shaving for days to get there.

Where are your dirt floors?

What problems might be at the root of other problems in your career? In your life? What are you ignoring that might be at the root of your other problems?

Take a few minutes to Find the Why behind some of your biggest frustrations, and see if you’ve got some dirt floors to get rid of.