Moving from rowing to steering
At a recent leadership conference, my organization’s leader reminded us to work on things that only we could do, rather than work on things that our teams could do. Listening to his words, I remembered a job a few years ago where I took over as a department manager.
The previous manager spent a lot of time working mundane and repetitive tasks. Load the part into the machine. Push the button. Watch the screen. Repeat. While I was training to take his job, I pitched in as well. When there is a surge, a leader does whatever necessary to get the job done.
I also knew that these activities weren’t the best use of our time. The old manager had grown up in the company and survived lean times when technology was much simpler and money was scarce. But these weren’t the old days.
If one spends a hundred hours fixing a designing a process that shaves off two hours of labor per week, that improvement makes money forever. Reducing defects by one percent likewise pays back forever by reducing scrap and rework.
Surges were easy to get through by hiring a temp. But what about day to day routines? I began to look for other ways where I was bleeding time. I began to notice that I spent much of my time telling my team members how to do things. Often, I was telling them how to do things that they had done before, should have already known, or should have been able to figure out.
I needed a better way.
Stage 1 — How would you do that?
The first step involves an investment in time. When a team member comes to you with a problem, ask “What do you think” or something along those lines. At first, it may take some time as they think through the problem. You may have to ask a couple of leading questions.
Try not to give too much advice. If their answer will work, nod sagely and tell them to go ahead. The employee’s answer will likely not be the way that you would solve the problem. By definition, then, you won’t think it is the ‘best’ way to solve the problem. Ignore this feeling. You can get your team members to think through the problem; getting them to think through it exactly as you would is futile.
In my case, to mitigate the time required, I appointed an hourly team leader. The previous manager had worked with each employee individually; now, when an employee had a technical question, they took it to their team leader rather than straight to me. This meant that while I spent more time with the team leader answering questions that she couldn’t solve, I cut the rest of the conversations to near zero. It also aligned with the structure of the other departments.
The same techniques work with non-technical problems too; I’ve used this when a subordinate supervisor related a problem with lower-level employees. How do you think we should handle Billy-Bob’s tardiness problem? Ok, let’s do that.
Stage 2 — Bring me the answer.
After a few days, weeks, or months, your team members will get into a routine. At first, you will verbally ask for their suggested solution and help them work through the answers. As time goes on, though, you will shorten the conversation.
“We can’t fit all the material on the shelves,” your team leader might state.
“And?” you say.
“I think we can use the shed out back as long as we lock it.”
From there, you might progress to merely raising an eyebrow or cocking your head slightly, and the suggestion will spill out from the employee.
What has happened here is that the team member has been conditioned to your repeated asking of their opinion. Now, instead of bringing you the problem and not trying to work out an answer until you ask, the employee will be thinking of the answer before they come to see you. Voila! Time reduced. The team member comes to you and presents the problem and the solution.
CAUTION: Never tell the worker not to bring a problem without a solution. While team members often underestimate their own capability, if you shut them down they may not bring you problems that you need to know about or that only you can solve.
Stage 3 — Tell me what you did. Or don’t even tell me.
In the final stage, the goal is to get your team into the habit of routinely solving problems without asking you first. Start with little things. “Next time, on something like that, just go ahead and do it then tell me later.”
It’s important to set boundaries. Maybe a budget limit will set discretionary boundaries. Maybe team leader or member latitude can be spelled out in procedures or work instructions. In a lot of cases, though, it will be a journey between you and your team to develop trust and an effective working relationship.
Here’s where the caution from Stage 2 comes in. If your team has progressed to telling you how they solved problems after the fact, or simply solving and disposing of challenges, then you must recognize that they are at this stage of growth.
At this level, when your team does bring you a problem, they will expect you to understand that if the solution was under their control they would have solved it. They will expect you to know that if they had a suggested answer, they would tell you.
In Stage 3, if your team members bring you a problem it’s because the challenge is out of their scope and needs your personal attention. If you ask the employee why he or she hasn’t solved the problem already, the worker will silently think to themselves “If I knew the answer, I wouldn’t have asked you.”
Once a team reaches that plateau, where they figure things out for themselves, managers should use some of their newfound time to congratulate the team members and show appreciation. Reinforcement sustains behavior. Ignoring good behavior leads to diminishment.
When you are able to create a new process or solve a long-standing problem, recognize that your self-motivating team contributed, even if they weren’t directly involved. Without their day to day blocking and tackling, you wouldn’t have had time for the touchdown.
Brian E. Wish works as a quality engineer in the aerospace industry. He has spent 29 years active and reserve in the US Air Force, where he holds the rank of Colonel. He has a bachelor’s from the US Air Force Academy, a master’s from Bowie State, and a Ph.D. in Public and Urban Administration from UT Arlington. The opinions expressed here are his own. Learn more at brianewish.com.