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Arun Hariharan

Quality Insider

Right Question, Wrong Question

First think objectively so that you ask practical questions

Published: Monday, October 29, 2012 - 09:02

Years of experience working with businesses—especially in areas related to quality, customers, and continuous improvement—have taught me some lessons. One of the most valuable is knowing the right question to ask.

Although it may seem like common sense, many of us hear wrong questions, and even ask them, during the course of the business day. Wrong questions invite reacting, rather than taking action, and unwanted results—or no results. Therefore I thought it worth listing some wrong questions and statements along with what could be asked and said instead.

1. Wrong question: Who did this? Or: Whose fault is it?

The moment this question is asked, we find people getting defensive. They spend time and resources collecting data and “evidence” to prove that it isn’t their fault. If we are interested in solving and preventing the issue, the question must be asked differently. First think objectively so that you ask practical questions.

Right questions: What seems to be the problem? Why did this happen? What is the root cause? How can this problem be solved? How can the problem be prevented in future?

As Marie Curie said in a different context, “Be less inquisitive about people and more inquisitive about ideas.” Ideas—or in this case, issues.

2. Wrong question: Can this be done before the next meeting?

Sometimes we make the mistake of setting timelines that are subjective or relative. The next meeting could be tomorrow or next year—or never. To ensure timely implementation and results, it is better to set a clear, absolute date.

Right question: Can this be done by November 16 this year?

3. Wrong way to end a meeting: OK, thank you. See you at the next meeting.

People walk away from such meetings without any intention of doing anything.

Right way to end a meeting: Here are the actions we decided at today’s meeting with the name of the person responsible for each action and the date for completion.

4. Wrong statement: This is not in our control. We will measure what is in our (or my, my department’s, or my company’s) control.

Unfortunately, our customers don’t care about what is in our control. They have the choice of taking their business to competitors that will look at things from their customers’ perspective.

Right statement: We will measure what matters to our customers and figure out how we can work with our external partners to improve our performance.

5. Wrong statement: The team is responsible for completing this project.

Of course everybody on a project team must to do his part, but unless one person (suitably empowered) is named as a leader and a single point of responsibility, projects often fail or get delayed. In the absence of a leader, nobody owns the project. Each person thinks that someone else will do what’s needed. This is true for any work to be done by a team.

Right statement: Mary will be the project leader with the following team members.... Each team member is accountable to Mary to complete his part of the project on time. Mary is responsible for overall completion of the project on time.

6. Wrong statement: I haven’t studied this particular problem, but I know the solution because I have 10 years of experience in this field. Just do what I say.

Right statement: We have studied the data. Based on the analysis, here’s the solution we suggest. This is also supported by our past experience.

7. Wrong question: How do I get this customer to just buy today?

Right question: How can we give this customer an experience so he will give us repeat business every quarter?

8. Wrong statement: This is the process we follow. The process is not documented, but with so many years of experience, I know what to do. There is no need to document it.

What happens if this person (the one with years of experience) leaves? Or if the work must be done by other people—maybe at other locations?

Right statement: This is the standardized process. It is documented. We use the process document to train our people on how to do their jobs.

9. Wrong statement: We have the best processes because we hired the best process consultant to design them.

No external consultant knows a process better than the person who actually does the job on the ground.

Right statement: We’ve got our own experts who do the job on the ground to document our processes. That way, we capture their experience from their current and previous jobs. Sure, it took some outside help to ensure that a standard format for process documentation is used across our company, but the actual content of the process documents comes from our own people.

10. Wrong statement: Standardization kills innovation.

Almost no innovation or improvement is possible without standardization. Most innovation is an improvement of what already exists. In other words, you have nothing to improve unless you have something to improve.

Sure, every few years, some path-breaking ideas that are truly “out of this world” may come along. But these are rare, and in any case, standardization doesn’t stand in their way. Having a standard and always being open to changing or improving is the best way to progress. It’s not standardization, but rigidity or refusal to change that gets in the way of innovation. Standardization actually makes continuous innovation possible. Progress is possible only if we have a standard and then continuously keep improving on it.

Right statement, which Henry Ford said best: “Today’s standardization is the foundation for tomorrow’s improvement. If you think of ‘standardization’ as the best you know today, but which is to be improved tomorrow, you get somewhere. But if you think of standards as confining, then progress stops.”

11. Wrong statement: We don’t measure this, but with so much experience, we know how to manage.

Right statement: We can manage only what we measure. Experience and the intuition it brings is important but is no substitute for data and measurements.

12. Wrong statement: Let’s call everybody for a meeting. We can figure out the agenda once we start the meeting.

Have you been at one of these meetings? I have, and it was the biggest waste of everybody’s time.

Right statement: Here’s the agenda for next week’s meeting. Let’s call only the relevant people.

13. Wrong statement: We have resolved this customer’s complaint. We can’t figure out why she is still unhappy. It’s surprising because we resolved her complaint within the time and in the manner prescribed by the regulator.

Sometimes, regulators, with the best intentions, lay down certain minimum standards for customer service. The standards suggested by a regulator for an entire industry will almost always be lower than the internal standards of the best in the industry. Some companies are satisfied with merely meeting the regulator’s standards, and in the process, dilute their performance to their customers and their reputation.

No regulator prevents us from having internal standards that are higher than the bare minimum prescribed for the industry as a whole. And let’s not forget: Ultimately, it’s the customer who decides whether his complaint was resolved or not, and whether to continue giving us business. These decisions are not made by any regulator.

Right statement: Did the customer confirm that her complaint was resolved to her satisfaction? What can we do to prevent this problem in the future for any customer?

Do you have a right and wrong question from your experience that you’d like to share?


About The Author

Arun Hariharan’s picture

Arun Hariharan

Arun Hariharan, author of Continuous Permanent Improvement (ASQ 2014), and The Strategic Knowledge Management Handbook (ASQ 2015) is a strategic quality, knowledge management (KM), and performance management practitioner with nearly three decades of experience in these fields. He has worked with several large companies and helped them achieve substantial and sustained results through quality and customer focus. He is the founder and CEO of The CPi Coach, a company that provides partnership, consulting, and training in business excellence and related areas. Former roles held by Hariharan include president of quality and knowledge management at Reliance Capital Ltd, and senior vice-president of quality and knowledge management at Bharti Airtel Ltd, India. He is a frequent speaker at quality and KM events around the world. He is also the author of more than 50 published papers on quality and KM.