Discussing Challenge and Direction

A manager and his direct report were discussing the challenge and direction for the next round of improvement. The conversation was going around in circles.

The manager was concerned about the excessive overtime, and wanted to establish a challenge to reduce it significantly.

The improver was skipping directly to talking about the things he would have to change in the process – mainly trying to level his demand signal somehow… long before “current condition” had been established… this conversation was just about context.

The manager was frustrated because he knows people habitually jump to solutions instead of first digging into the problem, and he was getting that right now.

The manager was repeating his question “But how can we reduce the overtime.”

Each time the manager asked about the process performance, the improver was offering improvement solutions.

Then I realized… The manager was asking for an improvement solution.

“How can we reduce the overtime?”

I asked him to just ask what he wanted the process to achieve. He still reiterated the same question.

Finally I said “Don’t say ‘how can we.’

Start with “I want…”

“I want the overtime to be 10% or less.”

The tone of the conversation changed immediately, because we really didn’t know what factors were driving the overtime. NOW it is time for the improver to go grasp the current condition (with help from his coach) and establish the next target condition (with help from his coach).

Then he can come back with:

“To keep overtime under 10% , we will need the process to operate like this.”

“Today, it is working like this, and we are running overtime as high as 30% in the worst weeks.”

“As my first step, I intend to…”

And how we’re moving in the right direction.

When the manager was asking “How can we…?” he was asking for a proposed solution right now, even if he didn’t mean to. The answer to a “how can we?” question is “Well, we could…” and we are immediately grasping at possible changes.

Listen to the words you use.

Be clear about what you are actually asking people to do, because that is what you are going to get.

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