Manufacturing AUTOMATION

The cardboard manager: Problem Solving 101

March 15, 2007
By Dick Morley

Last December, my son was working downstairs in the shop and noticed that the big diesel tractor, Killer, had a cold-weather starting problem. He came upstairs, where I was doing some design work, and asked for my help.

I followed him downstairs to the tractor, and stood there, silent, while my son described the problem with the tractor. He went through possible reasons for the tractor not starting, and then a light bulb went off. He announced that he knew the root of the problem, and discovered how to fix it.

I went back upstairs and realized that I hadn’t said a single word while standing next to the tractor, yet somehow my presence helped him solve the problem. All that my son really needed was a full-sized cardboard cutout of his father to bounce ideas off of. Just having someone there helped him go through a logical description of the problem, and then the problem solved itself. I call this cardboard management.

I can relate to the need to have someone there to listen. In my youth, we called this person the bartender. He would listen to our problems and bring us beer, while hardly saying more than a few words. Yet somehow, talking to the bartender – the silent consultant – was very effective, and we would often come to our own conclusions after talking it out.


Teaching is another example of cardboard management. Good teachers will ask questions, not answer them.

When I think of cardboard management, I think of Ed Harwood, our manufacturing guru when we first designed the Modicon programmable controller. Ed’s door was always open. We’d come in with management, production and manufacturing problems, and we’d talk it out with him. Ed seldom offered answers, but rather would let us come up with our own solutions by talking it out. That approach really worked.

The cardboard manager acts as a sounding board, only asking questions that will encourage the person with the problem to talk it out and come up with their own solution. The manager’s job is to give a level of confidence, and slow the problem holder down to eliminate the problems piecemeal. The manager should encourage the problem holder to identify the real problem, break it down and come up with solutions. They should ask what, when, where, why and how. Most likely, the problem holder already has the solution. They just need to find it by talking through the problem.

If you have a problem, my advice is to think it through before attempting to fix anything. Remember, the first thing you do when you find yourself in a hole is to put down the shovel and think. One person truly listening can change the view of a very difficult problem.

Solutions are always at hand. All we have to do is find them.

Problem-solving checklist
When approaching your manager with a problem, make sure you:
• Have read the manual;
• Come with suggested solutions;
• Break down the problem into segments; and
• Have an understanding of the real problem and what needs to be solved.

Remember, you are smart. You came to the cardboard manager for decision support, not solutions.

Dick Morley is the inventor of the PLC, an author, speaker, automation industry maverick and a self-proclaimed ubergeek. E-mail him at

Print this page


Story continue below