This suitcase-sized box was placed just outside the front doors of an old Catholic school in Oregon that had been converted into a hotel and restaurant. It boldly demanded EXPLAIN. Perhaps it the nuns that once ran the place put it there as a convenient reminder for us to always be penitent of our actions. The yellow stars were added no doubt for cheer, by the new management.
This made me wonder why we have suggestion boxes, but no EXPLAIN boxes. Suggestions boxes are management’s attempt to engage the workers in giving suggestions for improvement. Sometimes hotels, restaurants, retail outlets or courageous hospitals and bold government offices place suggestion boxes in areas trafficked by customers in an attempt to receive feedback on their performance and ideas for improvement. However well-intentioned, few suggestions enjoy long and successful careers. This is largely because the expectations from those giving the feedback and suggestion for progress are seldom matched by the actions of those asking for the suggestions in the first place.
How would EXPLAIN boxes work? Management set up the boxes and implore workers or customers, “suggest” improvements. Management is asking for solutions to problems. This encourages suggestion-jumping, a highly overrated activity that has no place in a lean management system, save for only the most urgent and temporary measures as triage. If we want solutions to our problems, we need to begin by grasping the situation correctly. Please explain, what is the perceived problem? Please explain, how is the company, the employee, or the customer adversely affected? Please explain, this is a problem because what standard, goal or requirement is not being met? Please explain, how did this condition come to be? Please explain, where are the points of cause? Please explain, what are the chain of actions or conditions that result in, or cause this problem?
That is rather a large number of pieces of paper to slip into a box for the purpose of making a simple improvement suggestion. This also explains why the one-page A3 problem solving format is a popular and effective way to “explain” one’s problem solving idea, per above. Most effective suggestion system forms shrink down the questions built into A3 thinking, with the expectation that the problem solver works through most of this through discussion with a coach before putting an improvement idea down on paper. At the most basic level, tired old suggestion boxes could be repainted and rebranded as explain boxes, paired with A3 coaching to make it effective.
Another, and perhaps better use of the explain box may be as triggers for management to explain themselves. Instead of suggestions, workers and customers write down things that they can’t make sense of or don’t understand. These would be distributed to the lowest appropriate level of management to address and answer. When leaders are making bad decisions, many times the people under them can spot this in advance of the leadership team, and far earlier than the operational or financial results will reveal.
These boxes would be opened daily. Answers would be delivered through simplest appropriate means, such as a daily team huddle, blogs, company-wide memos, and so forth. Communication is more effective when it is initiated by a pull, not a push. Small, frequent cycles of communication address doubts and concerns while small. Quick answers signal that management is listening, keep workers and customers engaged.
Why not capture the power of the crowd and raise the question? If the concern is a false alarm, explanation is given and no harm is done. Even when leaders are brilliant, setting a wise course and steering ably, why not explain good thinking to those who are curious? Rather than celebrating good results, why not share the logic behind the process of getting there? These are suggestions, but beg explanation.