A Case Study About Leaderhip Paralysis


Authored by Mikel J. Harry, Ph.D.

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Case Orientation

Located within a particular corporation was a certain call center that handled in-bound sales calls (phone in orders).  In this case example, each person calling in would be classified as either a new customer or a repeat customer.  Typically, both types of customers would ask specific questions about the product line – such as the sales price, duration of warranty, delivery time, available support, and so on.  From a mountain top view, the process for such in-bound calls was relatively simple – answer the phone, field the questions, provide informed answers, and then place the order if the customer so decides.  Historically speaking, this process worked very well.  In fact, the quarterly customer surveys validated a consistently high level of satisfaction with the call center.

About two weeks after the most recent customer survey, the VP of Marketing approved plans for a new sales campaign.  Shortly after launching this innovate strategy, the order volume began to markedly increase.  As the additional number of orders began to build, the call center manager noted an increase in customer complaints – owing to dropped calls, wrong product information, inadvertent hang-ups, and so on.

Initial Actions

To better understand the underlying problem, the manager initiated an ad-hoc investigation.  Of interest, the inquiry revealed that the base of repeat customers was beginning to erode while the base of first-time customers was progressively increasing.  Based on this, the manager justifiably argued that the net effect would soon turn negative if the base of repeat customers continued to decline (due poor service quality).

Upon discovering this harmful trend, the manager began to think more critically about the process and some of its operating characteristics.  However, after mentally grappling with some of the critical details and nuances, it became quite apparent that the problem might have much deeper roots than the manager first imagined.  Based on the manager’s cursory interrogation of the problem, it was reasoned that a full-blown root-cause analysis was out of the question – there simply was not enough time to conduct such a study.  The manager clearly understood that some form of corrective action must be immediately taken in a very decisive way; otherwise, the downward trending of repeat orders would soon off-set the resulting gains of new first-time orders.

Forming Team

So as to innovate and enable a feasible solution, the manager judiciously selected five employees to form a cross-functional quality tiger team.  Of course, each team member was familiar with the sales process, but two of the team members were significantly knowledgeable.  As it turned out, three of the team members had previous experience with the types of quality problems currently being experienced.  In fact, one of the team members helped to create the customer survey several years earlier.  In contrast, the remaining team member was new to the company, but did bring a great deal of experience to the table (from three other companies that utilized similar processes).

After personally selecting the team members, the manager then designated a local supervisor to lead the team.  In this case, the newly appointed team leader was younger and less experienced than most of the team members, but did have some background with call centers.  However, the team leader did have a marketing-focused MBA from a prominent university.

Without any complications, the newly appointed team leader quickly organized the five employees and scheduled the first meeting.  During this meeting, the team leader laid out a very clear and concise definition of the problem.  Following this, the leader encouraged his team to originate an aggressive solution during the next weekly meeting.  The team leader also requested that the project team develop a set of time-bounded milestones to better direct and govern their activity.  But upon closure of the second meeting, the team had had yet to develop such a proposal.  In fact, they had not even realized any momentum towards a proposal.

Facing Gridlock

By close of the third meeting, several competing solutions were discussed, but a concrete proposal with a singular focus had yet to be developed.  In a nutshell, the team was in a state of decision paralysis – owing to several preconceived notions about the problem, certain unspoken assumptions, and a healthy dose of skepticism about management’s true intentions.  As might be expected, such human factors were inducing a deadlock among the team members.

Thus, the team leader had to regrettably report (to the manager) that little progress had been made toward identifying a solution (i.e., a definitive corrective action) – the team simply could not agree on a plan of attack.  In short, the team could not achieve consensus on what should be done to alleviate the symptom.

To create a defense, the team leader informed the manager that the meetings were fraught with meaningless arguments that frequently diverted the team’s focus.  To suppress such antics, the team leader employed several time-proven leadership tactics.  But even after using such tactics, the team leader simply could not keep things on track long enough to retain a productive focus.  The negative karma was so thick it could be cut with a knife.  And so the discussions continued to be derailed – time and time again.

The team leader also told the manager about a debilitating personality struggle between two of the senior team members.  The team leader indicated the struggle was causing those with less seniority to stop contributing – owing to a fear of alienating themselves if they sided with one or the other.

Overlaid on all of this were the subtle politics of an overly ambitious team member.  This particular team member was cleverly attempting gain favorable posture in the eyes of higher management by holding private hallway discussions (with several senior managers).  Naturally, this was occurring in the time between team meetings.  Essentially, these off-line discussions were centered on the team leader’s lack of control.  Several times, the renegade team member suggested that the team leader be replaced – owing to a lack of competency and critical thinking skills.

In short, the team leader felt entrapped in a “no win” situation.  In short, the team leader believed the deck was stacked from the beginning – a set of human circumstances and dynamics that summed to inevitable failure.  Needless to say, these factors created a recipe for paralysis and indecision.  With the clock ticking and repeat orders declining on a daily basis, the manager was becoming desperate.  The manager knew that if the team could not soon decide on a definitive course of action, the momentum of lost business opportunities would soon dominate upper management’s radar screen.  Like dominos falling, the team leader’s ability to lead was being called into question.

Symptomatic Solutions

Well, the manager soon began contemplating a replacement for the team leader.  The manager also though about replacing the seemingly disruptive team members.  Worse yet, the manager was contemplating a strategy in which the downward trend of repeat orders could be masked by keeping management’s attention focused on the increasing trend of first-time orders.

The manager reasoned that by the time the downward trend of repeat orders overpowered the upward trend of new orders, the manager would be a new management position elsewhere in the company.  The manager was now in the position of “nothing to gain and everything to lose.”  So what should the manager do at this point?

As one might expect, by now the team leader is in a very precarious position. What should the team leader now do to exercise damage control?  If team leader continues down the same path, it is likely that more of the same will ensue.  On the other hand, if the team leader changes the approach, what roadmap should be followed?  Along these lines, what could the team leader have done upfront to better capitalize on each team member’s unique strengths while concurrently avoiding their potentially harmful personality traits?  Could the team leader have built a base of agreement to better unite and channel the team’s thinking?  In hindsight, it is easy to see many of the mistakes – on behalf of the process manager and team leader.  But as we all know, hindsight is not “real time” foresight.

Closing Questions

Is there not a repeatable leadership process that can optimize the potential for uncovering a consensus-based solution in a short period of time, consistently, and reliably?  Is there not a process that can diffuse conflict – before the fact?  Is there a decision methodology that is robust or otherwise impervious to the negative side of human dynamics?  Is there not a tool that can help a team leader realize the benefits of divergent thinking while turning the volatility of conflicting personalities into a positive force; thereby, accelerating the discovery of a feasible and optimal solution?

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Dr. Mikel J. Harry Biography & Professional Vita

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Business Email: Mikel.Harry@SS-MI.com

Copyright 2013 Dr. Mikel J. Harry, Ltd.

About Mikel Harry

Dr. Harry has been widely recognized in many of today's notable publications as the Co-Creator of Six Sigma and the world's leading authority within this field. His book entitled Six Sigma: The Breakthrough Management Strategy Revolutionizing the World’s Top Corporations has been on the best seller list of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Business Week, and Amazon.com. He has been a consultant to many of the world’s top senior executives, such as Jack Welch, former CEO and Chairman of General Electric Corporation. Dr. Harry has also been a featured guest on popular television programs, such as the premier NBC show "Power Lunch." He is often quoted in newspapers like USA Today and interviewed by the media, such as The Economic Times. In addition, Dr. Harry has received many distinguished awards in recognition of his contributions to industry and society. At the present time, Dr. Harry is Chairman of the Six Sigma Management Institute and CEO of The Great Discovery, LLC.
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