Help Workers Get What They Need

By John Crossan

So many times in problem solving, the really smart, expert people come up with an analysis that everyone truly believes is the right answer—and really wants to work. But when it’s time to implement the solution, they run into “You know, it just didn’t work” or “It just didn’t last” or “Nobody would buy into it.” 

Most people tend to get hung up on what they want rather than what they need. They fall in love with their elegant solutions and want them to work. (For example, engineers usually focus on the technical solution: “We’ve found the perfect solution, so let’s not waste any time getting it in place. Forget all of that soft-skills stuff—just make people do it now.”) For others, their primary frustration lies in the time spent hunting down and eliminating the elusive “single root cause” instead of simply implementing some of the many solutions to various, fairly obvious contributing causes whose resolution would make things quickly better. This isn’t saying that structured analysis isn’t necessary, but rather that it’s not the biggest part of fixing or improving. 

Unfortunately, because problem solvers tend to address fundamental issues, too many of the “best” solutions become larger, which usually means they are expensive and time consuming. That can lead to more frustration, because managers will usually push back at doing anything expensive.  

For example, one plant had a problem that was constantly aggravating personnel (as well as affecting productivity and quality), so they came up with a fix that would cost about $2,000. At the same time, though, in the works was a much more extensive engineering project (with a price tag of $80,000). Because the larger project would have also taken care of that problem, management was reluctant to spend the $2,000 for the immediate, small fix.

Unfortunately, after a number of months of management pushing back, the $80,000 project was abandoned, and the $2,000 project had been forgotten. Months of productivity and an opportunity to build some ownership were lost. The personnel had developed a solution and would have made it work, but instead they were stuck with ongoing frustration about the needless waste and about being ignored. Of course, management again paid the price of being tagged as “too cheap to do the right thing.”  

The thing that managers need to “try sometimes” in order to find a way to get  “what you need” is to listen to people, to give them opportunities to make changes, and to help them (rather than just tell them what to do). Workers really know a lot about what their workplace issues are and about how to deal with them. Rather than push them aside so “the experts” can deal with a problem, ask the employees themselves about it and give them an opportunity to resolve it. 

Implement a process that uses communication to build ownership. Leaders can’t expect this communication to happen on its own periodically when time permits; they must deliberately plan and engage in an everyday, structured routine that persists indefinitely. Through this process, issues and improvements are identified and discussed. Actions (including communication and any necessarily follow-up) are decided. 

The daily, small-unit, shift-exchange meetings are one ideal location for these interactions. Although personnel know what they need, they usually require some help articulating those needs and are typically receptive to genuine attempts to assist them. Therefore these conversations should also involve managers, maintenance personnel, engineers, and others who can help personnel find their way to the right answers.

Some people see change management as simply convincing others to do things that, for various reasons, they don’t seem to want to do. Ultimately, though, the goal should not be to get people to do things that they don’t want to do but to help them get to what they need to do. The right approach will achieve that aim and help them develop their potential. 

About the author:

Currently working as a consultant, John Crossan spent over three decades with the Clorox Company, where he focused on improving operations by fostering the installation and ongoing implementation of basic manufacturing and maintenance procedural mechanisms across 30 varied plants in the USA and Canada. He can be reached via [email protected] or