Tag Archives: team problem solving

They Act Like Zombies

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
Working with my team, trying to get them to solve a problem. But, I think my solution is better than anything they might come up with. And, I don’t have time to have a meeting, and besides, I don’t think my team wants to be creative. Sometimes they act like dolts. I can solve problems like this pretty easy. I have been in the business for six years. I have the experience. But when I tell them what to do, they’re like zombies from the Night of the Living Dead. Some of them walk around like they still don’t know what to do, even though I gave them the solution.

Response:
What are you training them to do? Are you training them to solve a problem as a team, or are you training them to act like “dolts.”

Whenever you solve a problem that the team should solve, you cripple the team from solving future problems. And, if your solution fails, who carries the burden?

As a manager, you have to figure out your purpose. If your purpose is simply to have a problem solved, then solve the problem. You don’t have to be a manager to solve the problem.

If your purpose is to train the team to solve a problem, then understand, you are now a manager, and everything you do sets a precedent for what comes after. Try this simple method of questions for the team.

  • What is the problem?
  • What is the cause of the problem?
  • What are the alternative solutions?
  • What is the best solution?
  • How will we test the solution to make sure it solves the problem?

Not Warm and Fuzzy

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I have been reading a couple of books on Servant Leadership. It makes sense, but seems kind of warm and fuzzy. I am not necessarily a warm and fuzzy person.

Response:
So, let’s shift your viewpoint of Servant Leadership from a warm and fuzzy concept to getting some work done. If you read this blog, you know I define work as problem solving and decision making. In your role, as a manager, you have a team to perform some organizational function (marketing, sales, account management, ops, quality control, research & development, HR, accounting). In the work of your team, they have appropriate problem solving and decision making. When things are stable, your team can manage all the routine problem solving and decision making.

And, when things change, and the level of decision making creeps up, sometimes they struggle. And, that is where you come in, as the manager. It is your role to bring value to your team’s group and individual problem solving. You do not do this by telling people what to do, you do this primarily with questions.

So, the concept of Servant Leadership has little to do with warm and fuzzy, everything to do with decision making and problem solving.

Getting to the Defect

“So, how did it go?” I asked.

“I thought my team was on the edge of revolt,” she replied. “But, turns out, they solved the problem for me.”

“How did that happen?”

“I knew how I wanted this problem solved, but, instead of telling the team what to do, I just asked questions and listened. At first, the ideas went in the wrong direction, so I asked the question in a different way. I was surprised. They gave me the solution I was looking for. And, before I could say anything, they volunteered to fix the problem.

“It seems the defect on the plastic parts were all from the same lot number. Sherman volunteered to run the defective parts over a grinder to remove the burr, but it was Andrew who surprised me.

“He volunteered to call the molding company and find out what was causing the burr. In fact, he left the meeting for five minutes and had the answer. The molder knew there was a problem with that lot, but didn’t think it would matter. He has since fixed the problem, sending a short run over for us to inspect. Andrew said he would be standing by.”

“So, why does this surprise you?” I asked.

“Instead of a confrontation, turns out, all I had to do was ask two questions.”

“So, what are you going to do with the rest of your day?”

Most Difficult Thing To Do

Cheryl was impatient to get to her meeting. She knew how this get-together would be different. Her behavior would be the first to change. Instead of a one-way interaction, Cheryl planned to ask questions and listen.

“I know listening is important,” she said.

“It is the easiest thing to do and also the most difficult,” I prompted. “Tell me, what will you be listening for?”

“I will be listening for good ideas to solve this Quality Control issue,” Cheryl was quick to answer.

“That’s a good start, but the solution isn’t the hard part. Heck, they know the solution. The hard part is getting the solution executed. That’s where you have been getting push-back.”

Cheryl glanced at the ceiling, then at the table. “You’re right. The resistance has been implementing the inspection program. I will just have to try to understand their position better.”

“Cheryl, it’s more than listening for understanding. Understanding only gets you halfway there. You have to listen for discovery. You have to discover where their position intersects with your position. Only when you find that intersection, that common ground, can you begin a conversation to build the best solution. When you find that common ground, you will begin to build the trust necessary to gain the willing cooperation of your team.”

Cheryl lifted her pen to the paper on the table. She drew a line and wrote “the team.” She drew another line crossing and labeled it “me.” Where the lines intersected, she wrote “the starting place.”

A Curious Child

My coffee was piping hot, hazelnut with a little cream. Cheryl’s meeting was to start in a few minutes. She was determined to turn things around with her team. She was hired as a troubleshooter in Quality Control, but finding the problem and fixing the problem are two different things.

“So today, you said you were going to listen?” I asked.

Cheryl nodded “Yes.”

“What position will you be listening from?”

The question caught Cheryl off-guard. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“The way we see the world is often influenced by our position. In fact, you have listened to your team before, but you were listening from a position of judgment, so you didn’t hear what they had to say.” I stopped to let that sink in. “What position will you be listening from today?” I repeated.

“I guess I will be trying to understand their point of view.”

“Not bad, but not aggressive enough to be effective. What position do you want to be listening from?”

Cheryl was stumped. “Curiosity?” she finally blurted out.

I nodded. “So, when you sit in your meeting today, you will be listening from the position of a curious child?”

Cheryl smiled.

“And curious children always have a lot more fun than stuffy Quality Control managers,” I said. “Curious children often invent interesting ways to solve problems.”

Listen More, Talk Less

“So, what are you going to do differently?” I asked. Cheryl had just received some brutally honest feedback from her team. Rather than become defensive, she was taking it to heart, a really tough move for Cheryl.

“As much as I know that I have things figured out,” she said, “that doesn’t seem to hold water around here.” Cheryl was truly struggling. She knew her team needed to make some changes, but she knew she had to make some changes first.

“So, what are you going to do differently?” I repeated.

“It’s almost like I have to do everything differently. The worst part is, that I can look at a problem and immediately know what to do. But I am going to have to lead my team through the problem solving process to make any headway with them. It just takes so much time.”

“Cheryl, sometimes you have to slow down before you can go fast?”

“I know,” she replied.

“So, what are you going to do differently?”

“First, I am going to have to listen more and talk less.”

“Good. When is your next team meeting?”

“Tomorrow.”

“Let’s meet about a half hour before and talk about how that meeting is going to be different.”

That Feeling in Your Stomach

Cheryl was waiting in the conference room when I arrived. I could see that her meeting had some unexpected twists.

“I felt like I had been fed to the wolves,” she started. “You were right, they said the problems with the finished goods were my problems. They said that I was responsible for the 2 percent increase in failure rate.”

I nodded. “So, how did your stomach feel?”

Cheryl looked genuinely pissed, but maintained her composure. “It was upside down. You could have cut the tension with a knife.”

“That’s good,” I said. “When your stomach is upside down, you are almost always talking about a real issue that needs to be out on the table.” Cheryl may have been looking for sympathy. “So, what did you say?”

“I practiced that stupid speech we talked about, so that is what I said. I told them that I needed their help. It felt strange. I didn’t like it. I felt like I was leaving my reputation totally in their hands. I felt like I was losing control.”

“And how did they respond?” I asked. “Did they argue with you?”

“Well, no,” Cheryl replied. “They were mostly silent. Then Hector pulled one of the parts from the reject pile. He pointed out a burr that was in the same place on every part. Sammy spoke up and said they had run short on that same part the week before. Get this. Because they were short, they used the rejected parts to finish the batch.

“They said they would have asked me what to do, but that I had been yelling at them, so they all kept quiet.” Cheryl stopped.

“It was a tough session?”

“It seems I was the problem. Yes, it was a tough session.”

Instead of a Confrontation

Cheryl emerged from her team meeting, eyes wide in partial disbelief.

“So, how did it go?” I asked.

“I expected a big confrontation, didn’t sleep last night worrying, but I think we solved the quality problem with the incoming plastic parts,” she replied.

“How did that happen?”

“I knew how I wanted this problem solved, but, instead of telling the team what to do, I just asked questions and listened. At first they were going off a cliff, so I asked the question in a different way. It was like magic. They gave me the solution I was looking for. Before I could say anything, they volunteered to fix the problem.

“It seems the burrs on the plastic parts were all from the same lot number. Sherman volunteered to run the defective parts over a grinder to remove the burr, but it was Andrew who surprised me.

“He volunteered to call the molding company and find out what was causing the burr. In fact, he left the meeting for five minutes and had the answer. The molder knew there was a problem with that lot, but didn’t think it would matter. He has since fixed the problem, sending a short run over for us to inspect. Andrew said he would be standing by.”

“So, why does this surprise you?” I asked.

“Instead of a confrontation, turns out, all I had to do was ask two questions.”

“So, what are you going to do the rest of the day?”

“I was thinking about taking a nap,” Cheryl said with a smile.

One Crab in the Basket

“All my team wants to do is complain. I know things aren’t perfect, but we still have to get the work done. They shoot down every idea I have,” Chet shook his head.

“Have you ever been crabbing?” I asked. “Crabbing, you know, where you trap crabs, pull them out of the water and throw them into a basket?”

Chet looked at me a bit sideways. “What’s that got to do with my team?”

“Here’s the thing, Chet. If you only have one crab in the basket, you have to really pay attention, because the crab will crawl out of that basket lickety-split. The trick is to catch more crabs quickly. With a bunch of crabs, when one starts to crawl out, the other crabs attach to the legs and pull him back into the basket. You would think they would all try to crawl out, but that’s not what happens. Sometimes, teams are the same way.

“Before you describe a possible solution, go around the table and have each team member describe the major benefits if we are successful at solving the problem. If you can get them to focus on the benefits, they are less likely to focus on the crab (you) trying to crawl out of the basket.”

The Fear in Contribution

“Does anyone have any ideas about how we can solve this problem?” Wayne asked. The team just sat there, staring at him with lizard eyes, fixated, motionless. Sure, it was Wednesday (hump day), but the atmosphere was limp.

It was like throwing a party where no one shows up. You think you have done your job as a manager, assembling the troops to solve a problem, but you get no response from the team.

It’s not lethargy and your people are not stupid. I find the biggest problem is fear. Fear that their idea will be seen as inadequate or silly.

Prime the pump. Simple solution. Pair everyone up. Have team members work two by two for a brief period of time (brief, like 45 seconds), then reconvene the group. Working in pairs takes the fear out. People can try on their thoughts in the privacy of a twosome before exposing the idea to the group. Primes the pump every time.