Are You Really Asking?


    Here's one I came up with yesterday… having a discussion with supervisors about asking questions as leaders.

    There's different tones of voice and different intents, when asking questions. The worst form would be, “Why the hell aren't you following the standard work??? How many times do I have to emphasize that??”

    A better approach might be, “It appears that the standard work isn't being followed. Why is this the case? Has something changed? Is there a problem we need to fix?” (as a legitimate question that you want the answer to).

    This is a “wife approved” example. If your wife asks, “Why did you leave your socks in the middle of the floor?” that really isn't a question that she's expecting an answer to. It's more of a polite way of saying, “I wish you wouldn't leave your socks on the floor, please pick them up.”

    Keep that in mind when asking questions of your employees. Are they really questions? Are you prepared to listen and engage in the response?

    Because you never know, there MIGHT be a good reason that the standard work isn't being followed. You have to discover what that is and practice kaizen (or coach the employee on the importance of following the standard). That's different than saying “follow the standard work because I'm the boss and because I said so.”

    There's no good excuse why I left my socks in the middle of the floor!

    Updated: Be sure to check out John Hunter's “Curious Cat” post on this topic

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    Mark Graban
    Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


    1. When a wife says, “Why did you leave your socks in the middle of the floor?” it sounds just as bad as “Why the hell aren’t you following the standard work???”

      I agree that your example is “wife approved,” but not enlightened. An “enlightened wife” approach would be similar to your better approach.

      “I know every once in a while we review standards and procedures in the house. I saw the socks on the floor today and it reminded me that we have not reviewed the laundry procedure for a while. Maybe we need to make changes. What do you think?”

      I know it is corny, but it would get a better response out of me than the passive agressive, “Why did you leave your socks in the middle of the floor?” You are right though. It is not as bad as the outright nagging.

    2. I’d rather have her ask the shorter version :-) When I said the example was “wife approved”, I meant she said it was OK to use the example/story here.

    3. Good post Mark. The thing these supervisors are missing is the fact the operators or workers are not following standard work is their (supervisors) fault. So instead of asking the operator why they are not following standard work these leaders of people may want to walk to the mirror and ask themselves why the operator is not following the standard work 5 times. And for the record, my wife just gives me the eye when I leave my socks on the floor. I may propose Mike’s version to her though. I like it!

    4. Great point Ron, about the supervisors. Supervisors need to “sell” standard work and its benefits rather than “tell” people to follow it. Having employees write their own standard work goes a long ways, rather than having it just “handed to them.” Supervisors need to facilitate the process of gaining agreement on the standard work, as different people will have different ways of doing things — deciding on what is best and what needs to be standardized is key.

      Let’s be glad our wives don’t play “5 Why’s” with us about the socks on the floor!!!

    5. Hmmm…but might our wives asking us why help lead to a sustainable countermeasure? If the question of “why are the socks in the middle of the floor” was approached in a continuous improvement mindset (not an enforcement mindset), that could be the beginning of the causal chain that would lead to discovery of the root cause. My wife and I joke around with the 5 whys, and it has led us to solutions more than once. We’re geeks like that…

      We have been training and practicing A3-style problem solving, and I see the notion of asking why beginning to change. We find there is a certain tone of voice or body language when we ask why that indicates we are asking why in order to improve not punish. Sort of a WHY?…not a WHY!

      The idea of a person not following work standards being the leaders fault is a central theme of the TWI Job Instruction course…the motto is “If The Person Hasn’t Learned, The Instructor Hasn’t Taught”.

      Anyone struggling with this problem would be well served to check out TWI…it really does bring a fresh, helpful perspective to the whole subject of standard work.


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