Continuous Improvement: That’s a Good Question!

Respect for, engagement from, and improvement through the people in your organization all come from asking the right questions with the right approach. Toyota’s Fujio Cho says leaders need to do three things: Go see, ask why, and show respect (Womack, 2013). I think this is a brilliantly simple summary of some well-studied and widely accepted philosophies. In this article I present some of my own thoughts on this memorable little phrase.

The common management approach to problem solving (improving a process) is giving suggestions and/or direct orders in terms of solutions, implementation, and timing. Since “how you spend your time is the single clearest indicator…of what’s important to you” (Kouzes & Posner, 2007), this approach is essentially saying to employees: “the solution to the problem must be quickly identified and implemented. And, by the way, my knowledge of the process is better than yours, so I will tell you how it should be done”. I also believe that the manager often has an unspoken expectation that their staff member should learn from his/her wise and efficient solving of that problem.

Lucky for us, there is a better way to solve problems that immensely increases our chances of sustaining the resulting improvements. We seem to accept that sustained improvements are only achieved when we engage the employees. Jim Womack noted that “no manager at a higher level can or should solve a problem at a lower level.” (Womack, 2013) We also seem to accept that a leader’s actions communicate a strong message, intended or otherwise. So, what are the actions that tell your employees “I trust you and I need your help to identify and solve the problem because you know the process better than I do?” Womack suggests, and I agree, that this comes in the form of dialogue with the people close to the process. More specifically, I believe that this dialogue needs to be driven by asking the right questions at the right time and with the right approach. Great, but how do we accomplish this? What are the right questions, when is the right time, and what is the right approach? Let’s take a look at each.

The right questions will vary somewhat, based on the manager’s and the employee’s understanding of the process experiencing the problem. The Manager needs to put his/her coaching hat on and ask the questions that will cause the employee to think differently about the process and its problem. The questions should cause the employee to consider how the process is intended to be providing value to the customer (the purpose of the process). Choosing the best questions will come with practice, but I will note that asking nearly any question about the how the process is functioning is better that the ones never asked. Also, thanks again to Womack, there is a simple format that can help us begin asking these questions. I paraphrase his line of questioning here, but keep in mind that these are only a few questions within a complete dialogue; a dialogue intended to encourage the employee to take ownership of the process, its problem, and its solution.

  • What is the problem with the way things are done now?
  • Ensure root cause is determined
  • Can the problem be quantified?
  • What are some possible solutions to the problem?
  • How can we evaluate the potential solutions?
  • How will we know we’ve solved, or at least improved, the problem?
  • How will we measure it?
  • How will you implement the solution?
  • What resources do you need?
  • How long should it take?

The right time for these questions is a function of this iterative problem solving (value-stream improving) process driven by the scale and criticality of the problem. Think of this as defining the project timelines as you move through the dialogue. We may not need to know when the improvement stage or the implementation stage will begin if we are confident that we are moving through the current stage (starting with problem definition) at an appropriate pace. If the scale of the problem is large, we will be asking different questions that may lead down the path of collecting significant data, thus delaying the next set of questions. If the problem appears to be critical, our questions may lead to enlisting additional resources in order to get to our next line of questions more quickly.

We need to ensure that we’ve received sufficient answers to the questions asked before we move on. Asking for potential solutions before we’ve answered the question “what is the current impact of the problem” would be premature and could lead us to poor solutions. Worse yet, we may solve the wrong problem! Let the scale and criticality of the problem determine the timing of the right questions.

The right approach is critical in maintaining respect for the people. If we fail to consider our approach, we risk the perception of a deep and insulting disrespect. This is where I wish I could change the “5 Whys” to the “5 Tell Me More” or the “5 Help Me Understand”. Say I asked you which route you take on your commute to work and you answered “I take Glenmore Trail to Macleod Trail, then east on 17th Ave”. How would it make you feel when I immediately respond with “Why?” You are likely to wonder if I am questioning your logic in choosing your route or that I believe I know a “better” route. There’s a good chance I’ve caused you to become defensive and won’t get many honest answers to my subsequent questions. Spend some time thinking about your next question and how it can be asked without communicating any implications or assumptions. Say the process in question is a paperwork process with multiple approval points within. Instead of asking “why does the employee, their supervisor, and the vice president all need approve this document before completion of processing?” I would be better off asking “what policies are in place requiring each of these approvals?” This can lead the conversation toward potential root causes. In this case, possibly outdated internal policies.

In summary, “Go see, ask why, show respect” is a great phrase to keep in mind. Going to see will help to demonstrate, via how you spend your time, that the process and its people are important to you. Asking why will help to develop front-line ownership of processes, process problems, and the generation and implementation of their solutions. Showing respect will assist in developing a no-blame environment where employees getting involved in improving process is simply the way things are done in your organization. In other words, you will have developed a culture of continuous improvement.

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