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Questioning How Your Plant Operates Is Hard, and Why the Answer to How? Is Yes!

4. July 2019 22:42

By: Joe Baggett,  Innovative Wood Process Solutions  

The best answers come from the best questions. And from the best questions come the deepest understanding.(although sometimes we won’t like the answers to those "best questions.")

Let's take a look at how we can learn to ask the best questions. As the skills for each area of wood manufacturing (fabrication, finishing, programming, etc.) become more specialized, managers must adopt a type of strategic learning to be able to tap into and harness the specialized skills of department managers. In other words, you have to figure out how to become a temporary "expert," while asking the right questions to guide the conversation and discovery, in the context of the actual “world” of wood manufacturing.

It seems there is always a noteworthy business that is closing down (like Wood-Mode) or shifting to Mexico (like MasterBrand ) or even exiting the business (like Masco).  Somehow under new ownership or at a new location, these businesses are able to start fresh and succeed, or else they never re-open, like Cardell. 

And that is largely because the former leaders have not asked the right questions - or didn’t want to. While that may seem harsh or even irrelevant during this strong economy, it is important for organizations that endeavor to create strategic learning organizations that constantly reinvent themselves. Wille Peterson in his book Strategic Learning says “failure is seldom caused by what the environment does to us; it is caused most often by what we do to ourselves”.

According to an old friend and industry colleague (he’s wood industry leader John Huff), people will believe 25% of what they hear, 50 percent of what they see, and 100 percent of what they want to believe. John and I often joked together about how biased our own thinking processes were, and we struggled with what we could do to overcome our own preconceived ideas and beliefs.

In all these queries, l realized the outcomes on projects are more of a product of the questions we ask - even when we don’t always consciously understand that those questions actually come from our pre-conceived ideas and assumptions. Most of the things we ask or assume come from thought patterns that were based on “What to Think” behavior. These were formed from the way we see the world in which we work and live, day-to-day.

But that view of the world is a product of our own background. It is the sum of our education, exposure, belief systems, and culture. In re-engineering or starting up a plant, we have to be open to set that aside. Here’s a good example and thought exercise on that concept:

I’m a big fan of the Peter Sellers Pink Panther movies. In a scene from “The Return of the Pink Panther.”  Sellers was checking into a hotel and saw a dog sitting next to the front desk manager. He asked, “Does your dog bite?”

The manager looked up and said, “No.” Sellers reached down to pet the animal, which promptly bit his hand, pulling off his glove. Shocked, Sellers immediately retracted his hand and exclaimed, “I thought you said your dog did not bite!” The hotel manager looked up and said, “That is not my dog.” Context is everything for asking the right questions.

In my last blog, I mentioned most wood manufacturing companies have a “dungeon” – the place where equipment that is not in use or is obsolete, is stored. I asked if we had to write a report about the equipment not in use or obsolete, what story would it tell? In general, I believe it would tell about how there was a failure to derive increasing simplicity from increasing complexity.

The wood industry has become increasingly specialized and more complex while making some traditional methods seem “easier.” This increased specialization has caused some wood products manufacturers to keep it simple, while not taking full advantage of possible improvements and game-changing technology.

The average woodshop may not want to acquire the maintenance, operator or leadership talent to adopt and utilize the technology. Some manufacturers risk acquiring the technology, but don’t have the organization or strategy to apply it in a successful manner, and end up discarding it for simpler methods and machines. Some are investing in the organizational talent, culture, strategy and learning to apply as much cutting-edge technology as possible,but are is still years removed from what could be and should be the current state.

I recently visited a cabinet shop and was required to sign an non-disclosure agreement because they had switched to a new wood coating. While we observed the operation, we couldn’t help but notice the coating was a modern but typical post-catalyzed conversion varnish. This type of wood coating has been around for well over 30 years. It was new to them (their world) but in the actual world of available wood coatings, this is an older technology (in the actual world of woodworking). 

The increased specialization in the woodworking industry has created these two worlds. This is a good thing because we need to be constantly developing cutting edge technology but, to successfully apply it, we also need to put it into perspective and context. Strategic learning is the key to harnessing this specialization for its value and asking the right questions in the context closer to the actual “world” of wood manufacturing.

It starts by re-envisioning the way we ask our questions. Peter Block does great work in his book, The Answer to How Is Yes, in re-envisioning the way we ask questions. As Block puts it: 

There is depth in the question “How do I do this” that is worth exploring. The question is a defense against the action. It is a leap past the question of purpose, past the questions of intentions, and the drama of responsibility. The question ”How?”- more than any other question - looks for the answer outside of us. It is an indirect expression of our doubts.

Block gives us six typical questions that shape manufacturing operations, equipment and products more than any others and the way we could ask them differently that would have a profound impact.

  1. How do you do it? This the greatest assumption. The biggest question is what is worth doing and what matters the most not how it is done.
  2. How long will it take? The question how long drives us to oversimplify the world.
  3. How much does it cost? The most common rationalization for doing the things we do not believe in that what we really desire either takes too long or costs too much.
  4. How do you get these people to change? What would empower and create the environment for the needed organizational transformation? Also, what does it mean for me? 
  5. How do we measure it? Many of the things that matter most defy measurement. Our obsession with measurement is really an expression of our doubt. What measurement would have the most meaning to me and our organization?
  6. How have other people done it successfully? The value of another’s experience is to give us hope not to tell us how or whether to proceed.

If you look at the rhetoric in the woodworking industry you can see how the questions of “How?” proliferates in our thinking.  We constantly see "How To" advice in much of what we read, hear at conferences, attend and listen to in the woodworking Industry.  How to set up a profitable finishing operation, how to select the right software, how to select the right machines. 

If our default for developing great questions remains heavily on the “How” we will continue to be susceptible to the missteps resulting from the increasing specialization, and from other opportunities and threats. The best strategic solutions often require learning and knowledge we have yet to experience. The solutions take longer than what we want, cost more than what we want, require more or better people than we have. And they deliver results that we don’t currently measure.

I love the woodworking industry and want to see it rise to new heights, both on the national scale of manufacturers as well as the global scale. I want to see the small and medium-size shops realize their dreams and be recognized. I want to see the large manufacturers invest in technology and become even more strategic leaders in the global woodworking industry.

I truly believe that the most important contribution a leader can make is to make more leaders. It is my purpose in these writings to inspire and provoke new thoughts and passion, and evoke thoughtful but decisive action. I keep coming back to a need for us as leaders in the woodworking industry to revise some common thinking processes, an area we will continue to explore. 

Joe Baggett is President of Innovative Wood Process  Solutions. Reach him at iwpsolutions19@gmail.com,    817-682-3631. www.iwps.biz

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