How to Stimulate Improvement With One Simple Question
One of the most frustrating things that I experience in my process improvement work is when team progress stalls. There may be a lot of activity, but no real results. This can happen in many different ways.
Team members waste all their time arguing about what to do first. We have endless discussions about improvement ideas that never turn into action. Often, these discussions devolve into general gripe sessions with no real purpose.
On the other end of the spectrum, teams can find themselves with no clear ideas for improvement. We don’t make any progress because we don’t know what to work on.
There is one question that I have found to be extremely helpful in all of these situations.
Asking this question can help your team get unstuck and start making tangible improvements again.
The following are three specific ways in which asking this one question can enhance your improvement efforts.
One of the most common roadblocks that teams encounter is that the team members aren’t all trying to accomplish the same thing. Each individual has their own goals and agenda in mind. They each have their own pet agenda or idea that they are trying to convince others to pursue.
I’ve lost track of the number of meetings I have attended in which everyone spends their time lobbying the group to follow their plan, only to end the meeting with nothing decided or accomplished.
Most of the time, many different ideas exist because each individual is attempting to solve a different problem. Everyone has a different idea in their head of what should be fixed first. They spend all of their time and energy promoting their favorite solution to that problem, without first gaining alignment on which problem is the priority.
Taking the time to gain agreement on what problem you are trying to solve can help reduce much of this wasted time and energy. If everyone is attempting to solve the same problem, it will eliminate the unrelated ideas that tend to waste time and get the team off track.
Asking this question also changes the conversation from trying to agree on solutions to trying to agree on a problem. Typically, this is a much easier topic to gain agreement on. Once the problem has been identified, determining a solution gets much easier.
Have you ever been in what feels like a never-ending brainstorming session? Typically, this involves a meeting where a number of individuals are invited to share their ideas, but without a clear goal in mind. People keep suggesting ideas that seem to be less and less related to the original topic of discussion. Or there are no ideas at all because no one really understands the problem to be solved.
The discussion frequently goes down rabbit holes and tangents as individuals attempt to use the meeting as a venue for gaining support for their own preconceived ideas. You can often tell this is happening when people start giving what sounds like rehearsed sales pitches for their ideas. Or they preface their ideas with phrases like, “What I think we should do is…” or “In my opinion we should…”
Asking the question, “What problem are we trying to solve?” can provide clarity to the situation. This will help focus your brainstorming efforts on one specific problem. It will give you an anchor to guide the conversation back to the original goal when things get off-track.
The question can also be used to ensure that the problem has been defined with enough specific detail to make it tangible. It is difficult to solve vague, generic problems. Asking people this question forces them to describe the problem in specific detail.
Once the problem has been narrowed down enough, it becomes much easier to find a solution. Often, big complicated problems need to be broken down into smaller problems in order for them to be tangible enough to solve. Once the first issue is resolved, you can then move on to the next piece. Asking this question will help your team ensure they have defined their problem with enough detail to provide this clarity.
Asking this question repeatedly can have an increasing effect on the culture of your organization. Your team will become accustomed to thinking in terms of problems, rather than solutions. They will no longer propose ideas without having already thought about it in terms of the problem they are trying to solve.
This will increase the quality of the ideas that your team generates because they will be targeted at solving very specific problems.
Organizations that constantly answer this question also become much more skilled at identifying problems. It will create an environment in which people begin to look for problems. They will no longer focus on the problems with known solutions. More problems will be surfaced that can then be tackled using your chosen improvement process.
It can create a momentum building cycle that magnifies the impact of your improvement efforts. When you constantly ask about problems, you start to think in terms of problems. When you think about problems, you look for them. The more problems you find, the more problems you will solve. The more problems you solve, the faster you will improve.
If you feel like your improvement efforts could use a boost, ask the question “What problem are we trying to solve?” and watch how it changes your results.
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