Supervisors, managers: Win the war, not the battle

Be sure you know the ultimate goal.


In the frenetic pace of life, it’s easy to fall into the trap of resolving an issue, moving on to the next crisis, resolving that, moving on, etc. Some liken it to a game of “Whac-A-Mole.” When you’re in a supervisory or management position, the need to decrease your reactive time and increase your proactive time is critical. How can you do that to keep your group focused? 

One example that comes to mind is when we were implementing flow manufacturing and asking for active participation from those on the factory floor—not always a part of the factory culture. From a management standpoint, we had asked that those doing the work play a key role in designing the flow. Managing that created challenges for all involved. One of the floor supervisors brought up a tough issue: He was convinced that the correct spot for a particular table in assembly was in a certain position, but the group of people who worked in that area didn’t agree. He was frustrated, thinking he should just tell them to move it where he wanted and get on with it. Fortunately, he decided to talk it over with the group before taking that action. 

What would you do? Here’s something to consider: The amount of time you spend directly interacting with those in your charge is usually very small. After all, 1% of the 2,000 hours in a work year is 20 hours. So you may spend a few percent of the year, at best, with each person—not much time. Therefore, in the time you do have, reinforcing how you want things done, not just how to do one particular thing, is more important. Think: “Win the war, not the battle.” If you’re trying to encourage team members to think for themselves and progressively problem solve to come up with the right answer without your involvement, don’t cut off the right type of thinking too soon by being a dictator and forcing an answer. 

Obviously you need to step in if things aren’t happening, and when that’s the case it’s a judgment call on your part. But if the group is making decisions appropriately, at a good pace, and moving in the right direction, let them. Premature intervention could be a very costly move, as you stand a chance of losing their hearts and minds. They’ll forever conclude that you really didn’t mean it, that you’d just read a management book and that fad will pass. They’ll respond by cutting off the flow of ideas, and as a result the group will lose by missing opportunities to improve. Additionally, you will have taken a serious blow to your credibility, perhaps the biggest loss to your leadership role. 

In my example above regarding placement of the table in the assembly, I gave the floor supervisor the additional suggestion that if he was right, the workers would keep evolving to put that table where he thought was best. They’d eventually get to that point—by themselves. Allowing that to happen opened up opportunities for the team to do other things that they didn’t even know needed to be done, which was the point of making this culture change. And if they were right—and the floor supervisor was not—he’d learn something too. 

So, make sure you know what your ultimate goal is, then keep it in mind as your group moves ahead. Reinforce the behavior that is in line with that goal and correct the behavior that is not. Don’t win the battle but lose the war—instead, know the war you are trying to win, and give up battles as needed.

John Suzukida was Trane’s senior VP of global marketing and strategy prior to founding Lanex Consulting in 2002, which focuses on strategic planning and product-to-solutions business model transitions. He has a BSME and distinguished alumnus award from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

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