Leaders: Got Questions? Ask Your People!

Business People's Hands RaisedKen Blanchard tells a story about his early days as a consultant.  One day he was brought in to help address a turnover problem at a manufacturing plant in the Southeastern United States.  In spite of competitive wages and benefits and an overall positive assessment from employees, the plant was experiencing large spikes in people leaving every summer and management couldn’t figure out why.

When Ken arrived, he was briefed on the situation and the inability to determine a cause.  After reviewing the data, Ken thought about it a minute and then suggested that a good next step would be to talk to front line employees to see if they could shed some light on the situation.

“Why do you want to talk to them?  What would they know that we don’t?” was the general reaction of the senior leadership.

But Ken persisted. He conducted a number of interviews and found out that people thought that the plant was a good place to work and that wages were competitive as management had shared.  However, he also quickly found out that the air conditioning in the plant didn’t work very well.  As one worker told him, “It’s hotter than heck down there—and after a while you just can’t take it anymore.  That’s why people leave.”

Ken reported the information back to the senior leaders who were surprised. They hadn’t thought to ask the people closest to the situation. They quickly improved the air conditioning system and saw the retention rate return to normal levels.

And even though Ken’s mom exclaimed, “And you get paid for this?” when he first shared the story, the problem is more common than it might seem at first.

Here are three questions to ask about your own organization:

  1. Are their opportunities for improvement in your organization that are well-known to frontline workers but may not be known to senior leaders?
  2. What aspects of your company’s culture might keep people from sharing what they know?
  3. How can you, as a leader, make it easier for people to share information with you?

It is easy for senior leaders to become isolated and removed from the day-to-day activities happening within their organizations. Talk to your people. Ask questions. You might be surprised by what you learn.

7 thoughts on “Leaders: Got Questions? Ask Your People!

  1. I love your comments. If you want to learn more read Sam Walton’s autobiography called Made in America, My Story. His philosophy was…..if you want to know how your business is doing, ask the person that talks to the customer. The same idea, and a powerful recommendation for the next generation.

    • Hi Dave–thanks for sharing the recommendation on reading Sam Walton’s autobiography. It reminded me of Ken Blanchard talking about working with former Wal-Mart COO Don Soderquist. Ken described how during Don’s tenure he made sure to check in at local Wal-Marts while he was traveling. He wanted to see all the good things that were occurring and meet the employees who were making a difference.

  2. Great reminder. In lean terms, this is gemba walk or going to the source. Going to the source, interacting with front line employees, builds trust and improves communication.

    • Hi Todd–thanks for sharing the term “gemba walk.” That’s the first time I’ve heard that term. Love the concept and I’m going to look up more info on how it is built into “lean thinking.”

  3. Pingback: Leaders: Got Questions? Ask Your People! | lizstincelli

  4. Pingback: Leaders: Got Questions? Ask Your People! | Corpus Optima

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