While observing a morning huddle meeting last week, I heard a senior leader ask, “Was the standard clear enough?” several times as they discussed the previous day’s quality, safety and delivery problems. That’s a great all-purpose question. It resonated with me because it’s one I’ve been asking myself a lot this year.
The leader asked a rhetorical question rather than an open-ended one. When coaching problem solving, a leader is supposed to use open-ended questions to encourage independent thinking by their team, rather than just reporting on the situation. Such questions don’t look for yes-no or closed answers, but open ones in reply to how, what, when, how often, where, how much, who and why queries.
In contrast, a rhetorical question doesn’t require an answer but aims to persuade or influence the audience. When the leader asks, “Was the standard clear enough?” it can suggest an avenue of investigation, i.e. “Go check the quality of our standard.” But to experienced problem-solving teams, checking the standard should go without saying. This leader was using the rhetorical question to get his team thinking about how well they were managing standards.
The open-ended, “How clear was the standard?” is not so useful in a problem-solving context. There is often no easy way to quantify this. Also, if it didn’t prevent the problem in question, it obviously wasn’t clear enough. This raises the question, what does it mean for a standard to be clear?
If standards are intended to help us perform reliably, clearly documenting work elements and specifications is the bare minimum requirement. The rhetorical question of “Was the standard clear enough?” should spur additional levels of investigation.
Level 1: Were the requirements, specifications, conditions clearly defined?
This is the first level and should be a rhetorical question. The standard for standards is customer-driven, clear, detailed, brief and visual.
Level 2: How was the standard communicated to people?
A well-documented and clear standard is useless unless the information on it makes its way into the consciousness and muscle memory of people in a timely fashion. This extends beyond the content of a standard but the leadership’s belief and commitment to working from standards.
Level 3: How did we confirm their understanding?
This level of questioning is necessary because even the best information is subject to interpretation and misunderstanding by different people.
Level 4: How was the use and practice of the standard checked?
Even after a clear and well-communicated standard is confirmed to be understood, a person may not agree with it, be unable to follow it, or may fall into old patterns and habits without knowing. Checking in practice is essential.
Level 5: Where can we see evidence of continuous improvement of the standard?
A standard is only the best-known method at the moment when it was first created. Unless regularly reviewed and updated based on changing conditions, the standard becomes inadequate or worse. Even robust standards for highly stable processes can always be improved or be subject to disruptive innovations.
This points to the need for the standard daily management practice known as Process Confirmation. It is a method for periodically auditing the adequacy of, and our adherence to, process standards. Sometimes a leader asking, “Was the process clear enough?” is a request to problem-solving teams to go check the standards. At other times, it is a reminder to other leaders to be more thorough in their Process Confirmation activities.