CQI blog: The wisdom to ask better questions

Author: Des Kelly

Des KellyIt’s all too easy to go through life and only see and hear what we want to. But I am certain what I saw and heard recently wasn’t just a factor of wishful thinking, but an echo on some real learning.

The genesis to this was a statement made to me by a colleague many years ago that I have always remembered; ‘managers are rarely daft or stupid, but may occasionally need better guidance’. As Quality professionals that is a key role for us.

Houston we have a problem

I had been working with a group of leaders for some time and engaged them in how to think differently about the task of leading their organisation. I was really taken by the response of the boss when they were faced with some data suggesting there was a problem.

The response they gave was measured, considered and calm. They simply asked; “have we protected the customer?” Which, when this was confirmed, they followed up with a ‘slam dunk’ for me; “is this result a signal for assignable cause?” The answer to the question, at this stage, was unknown.

Clearly it would have helped if the answer had been known but actually the key thing here was the demonstration that there was a different question to ask. Here was a leader with the wisdom to ask a better question.

How many times in the past has the “Houston, we have a problem” type of statement been made with the questions “what went wrong”, “who was responsible” and “what have you done about it” being asked? It’s not unusual to hear these standard responses from good managers who have been taught that every time we get a result that we don’t like we must state a reason why and then take action.

It was obvious that the coaching and guidance we had given this leader had transferred itself into practice. As a result, they now had a deeper understanding of how processes performed and how to understand that performance.

They understood that taking action without knowledge is more likely to make things worse. The boss here had adopted a different way of thinking, had understood the concept of variation and was applying it to ask better questions. Questions that would help them and their organisation.

The conclusion they reached was the result was not a surprise, that occasionally this process would deliver this result and in effect, the process was not capable of satisfying the customer 100% of the time.

So they set about improving the process to make sure it would.

Director Consultant Des Kelly has over 25 years’ experience helping clients around the world develop successful improvement strategies including Rolls Royce, Bentley and Land Rover. He is a regular contributor to the Chartered Quality Institute blog.

Read his other articles by visiting the CQI Blog page or simply click on the links next to this article.

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