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How asking the right questions from the right people can solve problems

Frustration. It’s a consistent feeling I’ve come across when trying to solve a problem. Mind you, I’m not the one feeling frustrated. Instead, the frustration is coming from the people that have to deal with the problem on a regular basis.

Frustration with quality problem solving

Like clockwork, the problem appears, does its damage, and leaves for a bit only to return to torment them another day. This is frustrating enough to deal with, but the biggest frustration of all comes from telling people how to solve the problem and their pleas falling on deaf ears. Either the boss was too busy to listen to their solution, the sales team was too busy blaming marketing for a drop in leads, the maintenance person had another fire to go put out, or no one even asked for their opinion. Unfortunately, this is a common reality when dealing with quality and non-quality related problems.

So what’s the solution?

Step 1: Listen

Step 2: Act

It’s really that simple. There’s no magic formula or complex form to fill out. By simply listening to the ideas of the people that deal with the issue most frequently, you’ll go a long way towards solving the problem. If you think about it, it’s logical the people closest to the problem are also the people most likely to have a solution. When you spend a lot of time dealing with the same thing, you’ve probably already spent a lot of time thinking about it and have a way to solve the problem.

Oreo cookies

(In all fairness, this isn’t a foolproof theory. I’ve thought a lot about how to eat a sleeve of Oreos a day without gaining weight and I haven’t cracked the code just yet. Have no fear, I’ll keep experimenting and report back on my findings.)

So first, listen.

Depending on how far down the team is on the morale scale, you may not readily get ideas and solutions thrown your way. Fair enough, I’d probably hold things close to my vest if I had been perpetually ignored about a topic. The question then becomes, how do you draw this invaluable information out of an individual or team?

For starters, bring the issue into the light.

“I know you've been dealing with this problem for a long time. I want to change that. Let’s work together to make this situation better for you.”

“I understand you may have shared your thoughts on how to solve this problem in the past and nothing was done about it. My commitment to you is that won’t happen this time.”

However you decide to approach it, authenticity is important. You have to be genuine about wanting to help. Don’t read the script above and then walk away without delivering on your promise.

Here are some questions you can ask to draw out the solutions to the problem.

“Have you suggested a solution to this problem before?”

“What ideas have you come up with to prevent this from happening again?”

“What can we do to make this go away?”

“What do you think we should do?”

Sometimes, the most open ended question is the best as it doesn’t restrict the team’s thought process and can go in many interesting directions.

Next, act.

While listening is important, acting on what you heard is the secret sauce. It sounds silly, but it’s true. What typically happens is someone suggests a solution, people are too busy to work on it, and the solution is never implemented. After a while, people stop sharing their solutions because no one takes their advice. They lose hope that anyone will help so they resign themselves to dealing with the problem over and over again. This is why it’s critically important to act. First, you’ll solve the problem that’s plaguing the team. Second and more important, you’ll create goodwill with the team because you listened to their ideas and believed in them enough to help implement them. This will go a long way towards building trust and the benefits will extend beyond the problem at hand.

The Nabisco Code funny food analogy

Ultimately, Step 1: Listen and Step 2: Act are subsets of the Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle. The Planning phase incorporates listening and the Do phase incorporates acting. Hopefully you’re already practicing these effectively, but the importance of listening and delivering on your promises is worth repeating. Now excuse me while I try to crack The Nabisco Code once again.

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