Leaders and Managers – Choose Your Tool Carefully

Managers and leaders have many tools available to solve problems, improve quality, increase performance, and change employee behavior. Back when TQM wasn’t a four-letter word, managers also had Cause and Effect Diagrams, Force Field Analysis, and Flow Charts to solve problems and resolve difficulties. Actually, we still use these tools today, but don’t attach their use to TQM. Instead, we quote philosophies like Six Sigma and Process Improvement, new names, but the same old process.

Managers “empower” a team to sift through information and come up with workable solutions or transfer problem and solution ownership to generate personal responsibility and accountability. Another tool that managers can employ is to impose a solution without any team involvement. Yes, managers and leaders today have many tools that can be used in the performance of their jobs. The problem often is, however, deciding which tool to use and when to use it.

tools_small.jpgWhen I explain to managers the importance in selecting the right tool for a particular situation, I tell a story that happened to me in 1966. I was about to build a cabin in the mountains east of Salt Lake City and needed to remove a large rock from our future driveway. The top of the rock was about four feet in diameter and about one foot of it was exposed above ground. It was late August and I needed the driveway cleared so the large trucks could make deliveries the next spring. However, since I am not a contractor, I didn’t know what tool to use.

My first tool was a shovel, but the more I dug around the rock, the larger it got. It seemed to grow with each shovel of dirt. Next I tried a sledgehammer. For the better part of a day I beat the rock with the heaviest sledgehammer I could find. At the end of the day, however, all that I had accomplished was a lot of scratches, a few minor chips in the rock and an aching back. The result was clear evidence that I had chosen the wrong tools.

A neighbor had hired a backhoe operator to dig his foundation, so I slipped the backhoe operator $20.00 and asked him if he would move he rock on his lunch break. By the end of lunch the rock was still there, only with a few more scrapes and chips. I got my $20.00 back.

Frustrated beyond description because winter was about to set in, I described my plight to an old farmer. He told me to drill a dozen deep holes around the perimeter of the rock and fill them with water. He explained that the freezing water would pop the top of the rock off before spring. The following spring I anxiously waited for the snow to melt, only to discover the farmer had also recommended the wrong tool. The rock was still intact.

Management and Leadership ToolsNow I was in trouble. Delivery trucks were going to arrive any day and I had to find a tool strong enough to move the rock. Because I had used dynamite the previous summer to remove tree stumps, asked the dynamite salesperson if I should blast the rock. I didn’t know at the time that the person selling dynamite knew very little about explosives. Being totally unaware of his inexperience I listened carefully to his advice. He suggested that I use 15 pounds of a new type of plastic explosive that had just arrived. He said to pack the plastic explosives and a blasting cap around the rock, and then cover it with several wet blankets and mud.

Now, luckily in today’s world, a common citizen cannot purchase explosives, but my rock experience took place in 1966 when our society was much different. So on a Saturday morning, with the full cooperation of the local police who blocked off traffic on a nearby road, I lit a 15-minute fuse and hurried a half-mile away to await the impending explosion. But 15 minutes came and went, and there was no explosion.

Do you have any idea how stupid I must have been to walk up to the rock and remove the blankets? The blasting cap had gone off, but for some reason, the plastic didn’t explode. The police officer let the cars through the roadblock and told me that I had to make a quick decision.

Something I did know is that a blasting cap would set off a stick of dynamite because I had done it at least 20 times the previous summer. So I guessed that the dynamite detonation would set off the plastic explosives. I quickly reset the explosives with a blasting cap, one stick of dynamite, and 15 pounds of plastic explosives. Then I lit a 15-minute fuse and hurried to my vantage point a half-mile away.

I remember looking at my watch because I was really surprised that we coincidently had an earthquake at the exact moment my watch indicated the 15 minutes were up. Indeed, a half-mile away from the ground actually shook, but it took a couple of seconds for the loudest boom I have ever heard to reach me. When I looked toward our cabin site, I saw what appeared to be a small volcano. Tons of rock, dirt, bushes, and trees had been blown upward several hundred feet into the sky. As I gazed at this unbelievable sight, I remember wondering how long I would be sitting in jail for blowing up the mountainside.

using the wrong tool as a leader can lead to dire consequencesThat’s when I saw debris landing near me a half-mile from the explosion. In fact, one rock about four inches in diameter almost hit me. Today, I have that rock in my office as a reminder that selecting the correct tool for a problem is critically important. Perhaps even lifesaving!

I learned later that the single stick of dynamite would have been enough explosive to remove the rock. If I had used the right tool, the explosion wouldn’t have flattened so many trees around the site. And it wouldn’t have required two dump truck loads of dirt to fill in the huge hole that was blasted into my future driveway. Even today, over 40 years later it is possible to see small rocks embedded into the trees
that survived my application of the wrong tool.

The point is without effective tools managers can become handicapped and even powerless. The problem is which tools to use and how to use them. Clearly, not enough time is spent in today’s business world teaching about managerial and leadership tools. Without proper tools, managers spin their wheels, create confusion, generate frustration, and generally become less effective than they could be otherwise. My advice: Be sure that you learn about the tools, and only use enough explosive to remove the rock. Remember, fill dirt is expensive.

Watch for upcoming blog posts on useful tools for managers and leaders. You can also browse past posts and find useful information.

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About the Author

Richard Williams, Ph.D.

Dr. Richard L. Williams has been a business consultant for over 40 years and has conducted more than 5,000 workshops to more than 350,000 managers and executives. Rick’s interests include maximizing human performance, team building, leadership development, executive coaching, process improvement, and instrumentation research and design. Rick has experience in working with a wide range of industries globally.