Sunday, April 22 , 2018, 8:31 am | Fair with Haze 58º


Paul Burri: Sometimes You Have to Trust Subordinates with the Details

Good ideas flourish in an atmosphere of mutual respect

At one time in my career, I worked for one of those “impossible” bosses we’ve all had at one time or another. Ralph was the kind of boss who was extremely fearful of making a mistake and one who would never take responsibility — always looking for one of his subordinates to blame.

Paul Burri
Paul Burri

In my role as manufacturing manager, I would frequently come to Ralph with an idea for a new production method or for some new or improved tooling. Whenever I approached him with a new idea, he always had to know exactly how everything would be made — down to the smallest detail, what it would cost, how much it would improve the existing method, etc.

Over about three years, I brought him at least 20 ideas that always worked out and improved production, reduced costs or saved time. In one case, my idea for an improved version of the tooling for a certain machine increased production by about 450 percent — four and a half times faster! — and reduced the cost of the tooling by 70 percent. In addition, the new tooling was much stronger and lasted about 10 times longer than the older version. (It took a little more than a year for me to persuade Ralph to let me make the prototype for this idea.)

I guess that this is a good place to mention that each year Ralph would raise my production quota, which I always accepted without objection because I was confident in my ability to figure out some production improvements. I always met those new goals despite the difficulty of getting him to allow me to make whatever improvements I came up with.

One day, I again brought him one of my ideas, and as usual, he wanted to know every last detail of how I would accomplish it — and I had the answers. Except that this time we came to one small technical detail. When he asked me how I would solve that problem, I replied, “I don’t know, but I’m sure I will figure it out.”

Ralph replied, “I won’t approve this until you tell me exactly how you are going to solve this detail.”

I replied, “Ralph, I have been with the company over three years and have always come through. Do I not have enough credibility with you for you to accept my word when I tell you that I’m confident that I will figure out this small detail?”

“No,” he said. “I won’t approve this until you tell me how you’re going to solve this detail.”

I paused, then said, “You know, Ralph, I don’t think I will be bringing you many more ideas from now on.”

He said, “Is that a threat?”

I answered, “No. Just a prediction.”

I never offered another idea for the rest of the time I worked for that company. Of course, Ralph wouldn’t have seen that as him having made a huge mistake.

— Paul Burri is an entrepreneur, inventor, columnist, engineer and iconoclast. He is not in the advertising business, but he is a small-business counselor with the Santa Barbara chapter of Counselors to America’s Small Business-SCORE. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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