Little did I know what I was getting into when, in the Summer of 1981 Alan Lasater, a colleague in the statistics department at the University of Tennessee asked several of us to join him in teaching the statistical methods of Dr. Walter A. Shewhart and Dr. W. Edwards to people who worked in industry. Having spent a decade in the hallowed halls of academia, I was eager to apply my skills outside of the university classroom. I joined Al and two other faculty members, Gipsie Ranney and Richard Sanders, to launch The Institute for Productivity Through Quality. The initial class in the fall of 1981 led to a demand for additional classes at UTK in the spring of 1982 plus custom classes for five companies offered during the summer of 1982. It was evident early on that this was going to be something special.
The four of us taught classes and observed each other to provide continuity in support to the participants. Being new to this world of industry, I had a short, steep learning curve for applying my statistical expertise to address their issues. Early on, I discovered the importance of asking good questions; not just any good questions – but the right ones!
In early 1982, one of the first companies to engage the services of The Institute for Productivity Through Quality, Mccord-Winn, invited a team to tour their plant in Cookeville, TN. The mission of the visit was to get to know the company and find examples to use in custom classes developed for their employees. This was my first visit to a real, live manufacturing plant and I was blown away by the activity. There were so many machines making so many different products it was a wonder how everyone kept up with the pace.
During a plant tour, Al Lasater asked a steady stream of questions about many different aspects of the plant and the products. My mind was on overload. How did he know what questions to ask? This became my focus. My skills and knowledge about applying statistics and analyzing data were essential, but learning how to ask the right questions could be even more valuable.
Over the next few years, I traveled with Al, Gipsie and Richard as we worked with clients in the steel, paint, glass and food industries among others. We learned what it meant to observe both processes and the people who ran them. We polished our skills in talking with people about their tasks, asking questions and listening carefully to their responses. Some years later while working with a client, I suddenly had that Eureka moment. The light bulb went off. I was now doing what I had seen Al do years earlier – I was asking the right questions! Plus I was engaging with my clients on a whole new level. There is no substitute for asking the right question in the pursuit of continual improvement.
Now, 36 years later, I continue to hone my skills in asking questions, building on Al’s teachings as I partner with organizations to achieve superior results in quality, productivity and customer service. My specialty is integrating the many improvement methodologies into a customized approach for each client by asking the right questions.
- Keep your eyes and ears open, watching the interactions between people and the conversations they are having.
- Ask questions, particularly ones that deal with something unusual.
- Talk to everyone about the tasks and how they are done, offer compliments when you see something exceptional.
- Always remember that the expert is the one doing the work and never lose sight of opportunities for improvement.