What Problems Do You Have?

It was almost summer in 1985 when I became a supervisor at Rockwell International in Tulsa, Oklahoma. My crew built portions of the Air Force B-1B supersonic strategic bomber. If you spell the number “1” in the basic model number “B-1”, you have “B-one”, and therefore, it was often called “the Bone”.

My senior supervisor, whom I will call George, walked through the building twice a week with an entourage of managers and advisors to conduct his “stand-up” meetings. The purpose was to have a ten-minute meeting with each department to help solve any production problems. But George was normally on the attack and was hard to please.

On my second day on the job, the group came up to me and George asked – actually demanded – “What problems do you have?”

I responded, “I have no problems, sir.”

“Oh yes you do!” And George barked out a list of about nine items that needed tending. “What are you going to do about these?”

Smiling, I said, “Well, sir, this is my second day on the job, and this is the first time I’ve heard about them; so they are still no problem to me. They are opportunities to improve our production line, and I’ll have answers for you by this time next week. Thank you, sir, for coming by.”

Stunned because no one ever spoke to him like that, George glared at me, looked around at the rest who were trying to wipe the smile off their faces, turned back to me, and demanded, “You better!” And he stomped off.

I spent the remainder of the day researching the situation. Five items on the list were resolved the next day, and I developed a plan to address the other four.

Two days later at our next standup meeting, George asked/demanded, “What problems do you have?”

Smiling, I said, “I have no problems, sir. But here is what I did about your list from two days ago.” I read him the progress I had made, and the plan to continue on the other items. I then asked, “Sir, do you have any other opportunities for me to tend?”

Looking around at his entourage to make sure they weren’t smiling, he read a new list and asked, “When will you have these taken care of?”

“I’ll have an answer for that question next Tuesday. Thank you for dropping by.”

The first several months George hated me, but that wasn’t my problem. I was doing my job to the best of my ability, and my dad taught me that giving in to intimidation never solved anything. But neither do I attempt to intimidate others. George eventually began looking forward to our meetings because he was learning how to interact with people. He also learned that intimidation hurt the company rather than help it.

For my part, I don’t see obstacles or hindrances as a problem. Rather, I see these situations as opportunities to help people, or to increase over all operational efficiency in some way or other.

One day I finally had a serious production issue and needed time to take care of it. Seeing George walking down the aisle,  I walked up to him and asked, “Sir, can you bypass me in tomorrow’s meeting?” I explained the situation, my plan for tending it, and told him it would take a week to resolve.

George said quietly, “I trust you. I know you’ll handle it well. See you next week.”

Managers are people who are tasked with the responsibilities of getting the job done, moving the product to market, improving working conditions, hiring the right people for the job at hand, assuring that the company earns a profit, and so forth. Managers are people who need friends just as everyone else does; but sometimes they get so wrapped up in the complexities of the job that they forget to see their people as helpers and friends.

Therefore, the workers need to remember that the managers are not the enemy. If a boss or manager comes across heavy-handed, don’t retaliate or fight back. Relax and try to understand what’s happening. By your attitude, actions, and words, you can help improve relationships; therefore, improving the company. Make the boss’s job easier. Managers and workers are both needed for the success of the organization.

Not only that, your appropriate attitude, actions, and words just might set the stage for your promotion. Think about it.

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