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Pat O'Toole's Dos and Don'ts of Process Improvement: DO Ask Different Questions

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When it comes to process improvement, senior management influences behavior based on the questions they ask. And they change behavior when they insist on getting the answers. The executive question is a powerful tool that can be used to send a strong signal that expectations are changing — so make sure you use it wisely.
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#10: DO Ask Different Questions

My wife used to work at General Motors as a manager on the Financial Staff. In one position, her responsibilities included generating the agenda for, participating in, and distributing the minutes from the Roger Smith (then-CEO) staff meetings. One of her biggest regrets is that she started in that position a few months after the Ross Perot buyout. If only she would have been there during that period, the book would be written, Oprah would have endorsed it, and we would have retired rich! But I digress...

Being a freshly-minted MBA sitting in a Fortune 1 board room, she was constantly amazed at the power of the executive question. If, while discussing international truck sales, Roger happened to ponder, "I wonder how many 4x4s Chrysler sold in Guam in 1993?", she would inevitably detect some Executive Vice President jotting a note and subsequently assigning a Harvard MBA to conduct two weeks of research that was then packaged into a colorful, chart-filled report for the Chairman. She was equally confident that Roger didn't have a clue why he received this particular report or what he was supposed to do with it.

Employees exhibit bizarre behavior in an attempt to please executives – or at least to stay out from under the microscope of executive scrutiny. When presented with data that, on average, projects were spending about 50% of their time testing and fixing, an executive asked if it would be possible to reduce it to 35% by the end of the next quarter. The challenge successfully motivated the organization to change its behavior and accomplish the objective – not by changing how much time they spent testing and fixing the software, but by changing how much time they reported that they spent testing and fixing the software.

"Executive questions" provide insight into organizational priorities. It's nice that the Process Improvement Sponsor asks process-related questions in the monthly Steering Committee meeting, but what kind of questions is the senior management team asking in project reviews. Some still growl things like:

  • "Whose fault is it that the project's behind schedule?"

  • "Who do I chew out/demote/fire to fix these problems?"

  • "Given the state of the project, why didn't I see many cars here on Saturday?"

Although these questions may reflect senior management's REAL concerns, the executives need to start asking questions that reflect their new and improved process-oriented view of the world. The kinds of questions that senior management should ask are things like:

  • "How could the process be changed to avoid these problems in the future?"

  • "How can issues like this be identified when they're still just risks, and subsequently mitigated?"

  • "How do we communicate the painful lessons identified on this project to benefit others?"

Admittedly, when faced with a crisis, senior management must act decisively to contain the situation. After all, when a man is drowning, it's no time to teach him to swim. But once the man is safely on the beach, rather than chastising his stupidity, it is usually more beneficial to explore how a similar situation might be avoided in the future – and then discuss how the efficiency of the rescue operation might be improved.

Bottom line: senior management influences behavior based on the questions they ask. Furthermore, they change behavior when they insist on getting the answers. The executive question is a powerful tool that can be used to send a strong signal that expectations are changing...or it can be wasted getting answers like 257, right Roger?

Copyright © Process Assessment, Consulting & Training 2002

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