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Leadership in a Crisis June 24, 2011

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership.
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A crisis at work can take different forms depending on the sense of urgency and the response time required by the circumstances. For example, when a production line shuts down because of a quality problem it can quickly turn into a 24/7 situation that commands the attention of multiple levels of management, including suppliers and downstream customers, particularly if committed shipment dates are jeopardized. The pressure to resolve a crisis quickly can be overwhelming and cause even the best managers and leaders to behave irrationally and thereby miss the opportunity to immunize the organization against future events.

It’s important to differentiate between actions that are necessary to resolve the immediate crisis and actions that are necessary to understand what happened and what can be done to prevent another crisis in the future. I’ve seen too many examples where teams become completely stalled because they’re arguing over who is to blame. If an accident victim has a bleeding artery then I’m pretty sure the first priority is to stop the bleeding. It sometimes seems that people are unwilling to actively participate in crisis management because they fear they may be blamed for causing the problem in the first place. Leadership must help everyone focus on the immediate situation and how to get things back on-track, while assuring everyone that there will be a time and place for discussing accountability.

Getting things back on-track includes systematic troubleshooting and root cause elimination. Failure to correctly identify and eliminate the root cause of the crisis will surely lead to reoccurrence. In the high-volume manufacturing environment where I’ve been working for the last couple of years, the engineering team follows a highly-structured problem resolution process that is based on the excellent work of Charles Kepner and Benjamin Tregoe (see especially “The New Rational Manager,” Princeton Research Press 1981). Following this process means checking proposed root causes against observations, particularly since a problem will occur under one set of circumstances but not another. The root cause must account for the observed behavior, and process changes intended to address the root cause must be verified with measurable improvement.

This kind of structured process may seem excessive in non-engineering environments where it’s harder to perform experiments and collect data, but I contend that failure to analyze the causes of a crisis is the biggest cause of the next crisis. It’s very tempting for leaders to rely only on intuition and “gut feel” when the pressure is on, and any action plan executed with passion will reassure many of the concerned parties during a crisis, while a troubleshooting process will cause some of those parties to become impatient. Leadership in a crisis requires a balance of urgency and thoughtfulness, intuition and analysis, with frequent communication to stakeholders to give the team the space they need to successfully — and permanently — resolve the issue.

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