As a manager in a food production facility, much of your time is spent solving problems. Unfortunately, simple solutions to these problems are rare.

In the real world, even small problems will involve so many variables—and more often than not these variables include unpredictable humans—that no one can really know with certainty how to identify the best solution. But, it is still your job to find answers.

This certainly isn’t a new problem. Most of us have heard the old adage that great leaders and managers must be willing to ask tough questions.

Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers.
–Tony Robbins

While Tony gives great advice, few people understand what it means to “ask better questions”.

Be More Critical
Leaders in the food industry would be well-served to study the critical thinking skills that medical professionals apply to problem-solving.

Where business managers have been urged to ‘follow their gut’ or jump with both feet into whatever ‘system’ is currently on the New York Times best sellers list, medical researchers have been taught to pursue repeatable evidence when faced with highly variable situations. Legitimate researchers don’t look to Cosmo or Men’s Health for clues.

The problem is that we don’t know how to formulate a better question. When we look around the table at the Monday staff meeting and ask, “We keep running our mock recalls, why aren’t we getting any better?” we are not providing any context or boundaries. Do we expect that our team members are better at finding useful information in the data than we are?
Tossing out these open-ended questions usually results in about the same reaction that I get from my 12-year-old son when asked why he hasn’t cleaned his room; “I don’t know.”

But your employees, especially those senior people who are supposed to have answers, are far less willing than a 12-year-old to admit that they haven’t a clue. The result is often a scramble to deflect responsibility or, worse, they offer non-answers that seem plausible but don’t result in meaningful outcomes.

Structuring good questions really isn’t difficult. It just requires a small amount of discipline and a four-step process: PICO.

P: Problem

I: Intervention

C: Comparison or Contrast

O: Outcome

Rather than ask “should we wait a few weeks to do this knee surgery?” a good physician will construct a bounded question that is precise, it can be evaluated, and it can be repeated.

“In adults who sustain a grade three ACL injury (P), does immediate surgical reconstruction (I) result in better 5-year outcomes (O) than waiting 8 weeks to perform the surgery (C)?”

The order doesn’t matter, just be sure to include all four components to pose a “good” question.

Consider the previous question, “We keep running our mock recalls, why aren’t we getting any better?” Let’s rephrase:

“Our mock recall accuracy has not improved over the last five simulations (P). If we move to a Software-as-a-Service communications platform (I) rather than continuing to send email to our vendors (C), can we achieve 50% improvement in speed of product withdrawal over the next quarter (O)?”

Open vs. Closed
Open-ended questions that retain some ambiguity are still crucial for exploratory conversations, creating open dialogue, encouraging free input and stimulating creative thought.

However, when operational issues emerge that need targeted plans, structure and discipline are necessary to ask the questions that will guide action.

This approach allows managers and teams to evaluate their progress against objective, defined goals.

Geoff Schaadt, M.Sc., M.B.A., is a consultant with Delta Partners.