Sir, please open the vent…

This one is from my initial shipping days. We were sailing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean when suddenly the engine of the VLCC (very large crude carrier) stopped. As part of the normal drill, the entire engineering crew assembled in the control room to fix the issue.

The engine crew of an oil tanker normally consists of 5 engineers – Chief, First, Second, Third and Fourth Engineer, along with Motormen – who are assistants to the engineers without any formal engineering qualification, and Oilers – whose job largely is to clean.

The engineers tried to figure out why the engine had stopped suddenly. What followed was lots of discussions, each engineer providing his version of the issue and one by one we tried everything. Out came the manuals and books, complex electrical wiring diagrams and despite all efforts, the engine would not start.

An hour or so passed and panic started creeping in. A loaded oil tanker on charter is a very expensive proposition. The captain now started pushing hard to fix the issue. No matter what we tried, the engine would not start.

I was the junior most engineer. A very senior Oiler walked up to me, took me to a corner and said – ‘Sir, please open the air vent of the engine cooling system’.

We opened the vent. Lo and behold, the engine started! It was basically an air lock in the cooling system that had increased the temperature causing the engine to stop. As fundamental as that! There we were – the engineers, trying to make the problem as complicated as we could.

Think about how we face and solve problems in our areas of work. When we have an issue, instinctively we try and jump to solutions and more often than not, make it out to be extremely complex. And we do it in silos with a linear view.

Also, in many cases, the leader of the group drives the problem solving exercise with most team members just play supporting roles. They may have the solutions but would very seldom voice it.

McKinsey, in their article, ‘Decoding leadership: What really matters’, rate problem solving and seeking different perspectives as two of the top four secrets to effective leadership. And while times are changing, how many of us go out and seek perspectives? After all, we were ‘the engineers’ thinking we know it all, or have the tools to find solutions.

Sometimes, problems have very basic and simple solutions.Those solutions come from unexpected quarters, if we are open to reaching out and asking.

All we need to do is ‘Open the Vent’…