Empower your workers to solve problems

Dec. 14, 2012
Tom Moriarty says the types of problems that you solve for your crew say a lot about the type of leader you are.

Are you the kind of supervisor that solves problems for your crew? What types of problems are you solving? The leader or boss can be at any level in the organization, and the crew refers to the leader’s direct reports or others at levels below them in the organization.


The types of problems that you solve for your crew say a lot about the type of leader you are. Are you solving the things that your crew members could be empowered to solve on their own? Or are you working on problems that keep them from solving problems on their own. There is a major distinction between these two types of problem solving.

If you are solving problems your crew members should be capable of solving on their own, you should consider the impact it has on them. If the boss is always wading in to solve problems, the crew members are not able to show their own capabilities for dealing with the issues. Climate surveys and job-satisfaction surveys often reveal that people don’t feel as though they are provided opportunities to grow professionally, to be trusted with responsibility, or to have opportunities to contribute to solutions. These are major contributors to low job satisfaction.

When the boss is told of a situation and then personally gets involved, it takes away from the crew members’ opportunities to show they can deal with problems, to have more control over their work environment. Beyond the immediate issues of job satisfaction, the supervisor and others in the leadership chain lose the opportunity to see which crew members have the inclination and capability to become a supervisor and how they might perform with greater responsibility.

Tom Moriarty, PE, CMRP, is a former Coast Guardsman, having served for 24 years; an enlisted Machinery Technician for nine years; earned a commission through Officer Candidate School; and retired as a Lt. Commander. During his final year of service, 2003, Tom was selected as the U.S. Coast Guard’s Federal Engineer of the Year; an award sponsored by the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). He is a member of the Society of Maintenance and Reliability professionals, the past Chair of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), Canaveral Florida Section, and a member of the ASME Plant Engineering and Maintenance (PEM) Division. He has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Western New England College, and an MBA from Florida Institute of Technology; Professional Engineer (PE) licensed in Florida and Virginia, Certified Maintenance and Reliability Professional, various credentials in management and reliability fields. He can be reached at [email protected].
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It is of course appropriate for the boss to be available to assist the crew member if needed. Don’t assume the crew member wants you to wade in. An experienced supervisor will seek to understand the capabilities of each crew member and know the right way to let the crew member know they are available for support, if needed or asked. A crew member should never be unsure whether the boss will support them if asked. It should be explicitly stated early and often enough that people know.

The second type of supervisor is the type that hears about the problems their crew members encounter and first determines if it is the type of problem the crew member can deal with. If it is a problem that the crew member is empowered to solve, the enlightened boss will ask how the crew member intends to deal with the issue.

Oftentimes, the issue that needs to be dealt with is an indicator of a systemic problem — a symptom. One example might be a policy or procedure issue, or perhaps a problem with another department, which the crew member is not empowered to circumvent or change. Those systemic problems are the types of problems that a good leader should be working on for the crew. The objective is to avoid recurrence of problems that the crew members have to deal with.

It is most often best to solve problems at the lowest level. For a plant manager or senior leaders, take a few minutes to reflect on that statement. If a person in a leadership position is constantly allocating time to solve problems, what other things is the leader not getting to?

Can there be corporate finance implications for leaders who work on problems that their crew members can solve? You bet. It’s likely that there will be improvements that languish. Is the maintenance manager consumed with low-level problems and not able to rationalize and optimize the maintenance strategy on a critical system? Is the crew leader not able to dedicate time to a predictive-maintenance program or a root-cause-analysis program that would reduce downtime and increase production availability and profitability? Did you know that the cost of turnover of employees is between 25% and 250% of the employees loaded wages? These costs come from administrative time, training, productivity losses, and quality losses as new employees are brought up to speed. When crew members are dissatisfied, they are much more likely to look for other opportunities.

What can you do to improve? For the next month, every time you are approached with a problem, count to three. Determine if the problem is solvable at the crew level or if it is a systemic problem. If it is crew-solvable, then let them solve it. See how it works out for you, and for your crew.

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