Reliability leaders push problem-solving down to their people

A friend of mine grew up playing football in junior leagues, then all through both high school and college. He didn’t go pro, but for the love of the game went on to referee for high school games. In one of his first games as a referee, the ball carrier got hit and fumbled the ball right at my friend’s feet. More than 12 years of intense training kicked in and in a flash, he jumped on the ball and “recovered” the fumble. The play stopped and one of the players asked “Hey, ref! Can we have the ball back?”

The world around us is constantly changing – more people, more technology, more information. In this increasingly dynamic environment, there is greater pressure on leaders and managers to get problems solved quickly. After watching my friend jump on the ball, I realized that leaders routinely make a very similar error. In organizations, however, the “fumble” is not a loose football, but an urgent problem that surfaces. Too often, without thinking, when a problem is identified, the leader immediately kicks into problem-solving mode. Unfortunately, few organizations have anyone stand up and ask “Can we have the ball back?” In fact, most organizations have a systemic learning disability on how to improve problem-solving skills and, many times, the “solution” creates additional problems.

Recently, I heard an executive elegantly lay out a very efficient solution to a production problem his plant was having – only to be bogged down with multiple union grievances once the solution was presented. In reflecting on my own experience working with organizations as they work to implement Reliability Excellence, two consistent errors are made – the first one in philosophy and the second in execution. The first error – the philosophical one – is a basic misconception of the role of the leader/manager/supervisor in solving problems. This may be because the role is both counter-intuitive and, on the surface, contradictory.

“Do not solve problems, but work very hard on getting them solved.”

The leader has a critical role in getting problems solved, but it is rarely in providing the solution. To paraphrase a common leadership rule, “a ‘B’ solution with an ‘A’ execution is better than an ‘A’ solution with a ‘B’ execution.” Since it is rarely the leader who will end up executing the solution, engaging the people who will do it results in much better execution. The leader’s efforts are most effective when focused on the problem-solving process including:

  • Ensuring the problem is clearly identified. Can the existence of the problem be proven with data? Can the target state be measured accurately?
  • Did the team use 5-Whys thinking to ensure that the root cause is being addressed (and not just the symptoms)?
  • Does the solution ensure that this problem is prevented in the future?
  • Is the team directly associated with both the problem and the eventual solution?
  • Is it now time for a decision? If the team either cannot reach consensus or other form of agreement, then as the leader, it is up to you to make a decision and explain why. Properly done, this will allow those that supported another solution to “disagree and commit” to the selected course.

The second most common error is to focus exclusively on the technical aspects of the solution. Within organizations, the primary obstacle to implementing a solution lies not in developing the technical solution (the “hard” stuff), but in the political and/or the emotional arenas (the “soft” stuff). Leaders need to be sensitive to ensuring that stakeholder groups (e.g., operations, maintenance, union, etc.) are sufficiently involved and informed so that they don’t feel surprised or railroaded. Leaders also need to be aware that asking someone to do something different carries the tacit implication that what they were doing before was “wrong”, thus creating an emotional resistance to the change. Organizations have plenty of technical expertise for problem solving. It is the job of leadership to focus on the people issues (or “the soft stuff”), because in the words of the late Michael Hammer:
“The soft stuff is the hard stuff.”

By focusing on the problem-solving process and managing the people side of the implementation process, the leadership will increase the organization’s problem-solving capacity and effectiveness. In other words, if you are a leader in your organization, keep the ball in play and manage the game, but your ball-carrying days are behind you.

About the author:
With more than 20 years experience in organizational design, change management and a dedicated focus on delivering sustainable improvements, Scott Franklin is a well-respected authority on organizational change, specializing in the leadership responsibilities of change management. Scott, a senior vice president with Life Cycle Engineering, brings specific expertise in the areas of creating a combined learning organization in parallel with a strengths-based organization, while simultaneously creating a culture of execution. You can reach Scott at For more information on Life Cycle Engineering, visit

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