Asking the Right Questions

EHS Today - November 2010
By: Terry Mathis,ProAct Safety
Printable Version

Socrates had two students: Plato and Aristotle.  Aristotle sought to find the answers to the most important issues of his day.  Plato sought to ask the most probing and insightful questions.  Plato asserted that “…the unquestioned life is not worth living.”  Today, we view Aristotle as an interesting figure of antiquity whose answers are now equally antique.  We view Plato’s questions as having lasting and timeless relevance.

The works of today’s safety gurus fall into these same two categories: limited answers and timeless questions.  In our work with client companies, we find that most leaders can find their own answers if probed with the right questions.  Even in cases where leaders have difficulty finding answers, responding to the right questions and attempting to find answers tends to make them more open to suggestions and potential answers from outside experts.  It also helps them to recognize the right answers when they hear them.

One philosophy that makes safety gurus lean toward answers rather than questions is the concept of “universal solutions”, i.e. one-size-fits-all solutions to safety problems.  This philosophy is appealing to both the gurus and the clients.  Almost everyone likes simple answers and simple solutions.  This philosophy tends to ignore the diversity of safety issues and the even greater diversity of safety cultures.  Finding commonalities among safety challenges is important, but ignoring the differences is a formula for failure.  Even solutions that address 80-90 percent of safety challenges need modification to fit the irregular 10-20 percent of sites and issues that don’t match the norm.  This ratio tends to explain the 80-90 percent success rates of many of these types of solutions.

The best sequence of safety questions is one that moves from general to specific.  If leaders think through the big picture of their safety challenges, they tend to develop better answers to the specific issues that inevitably follow.    For example, I often attend meetings where the leader of a site says he or she is interested in a specific safety-improvement program or process.  I tend to start such a meeting with the question, “Why do you think that this particular approach is your next logical step to improve safety?”  But even this question can be too specific if you do not understand the rationale for the change.  So my first question was, “Why do you want to further improve safety at this site?”

General and Specific Questions
Questions this general tend to illicit immediate reactions, such as this is a dumb question with a painfully logical answer.  However, following up with questions such as, “What is driving this need for further improvement?” or “What benefit do you expect from this new process?” tend to make leaders think through their own rationale and identify underlying reasons.  I also ask, “Who will potentially benefit from this process?” and “What will success look like?”  Steven Covey said that highly successful people begin with the end in mind, so it follows that questions should help leaders see what the end is, what it will look and feel like, and what metrics will indicate the level of success.

Once you get answers to the generic questions, it is time to probe with more specific ones.  “Have you performed a Pareto analysis of your accidents to determine what percent of them would be addressed by this process?” and “Have you determined how many behaviors would need to be addressed to prevent the majority of these accidents, and whether or not these behaviors are within the control of the average worker, or would necessitate engineering or process changes?”  This next tier of questions sets the parameters of the proposed process and helps to either justify or refute the wisdom of making this the next step in safety improvement.  There is a saying in consulting: “Most projects don’t fail in the end; they fail in the beginning.”  Failure to ask the right questions enables organizations to proceed in the wrong direction and ultimately fail.

If the answers to the generic questions indicate proceeding, the next tier of question should get even more detailed:  “Have you ever tried this process before and, if so, how did it work?”  “If it failed, why?  And did it create a barrier to future efforts?”  “Do you have an existing safety committee that could function as a steering team for the new process?”  “How does the union feel about this approach and what objections need to be overcome to get their support?”  “What is the right time of year to do the training to minimize competition with other projects or production schedules?”  Rather than suggest an ideal (universal solution) implementation schedule, can you ask the right questions and help the site leaders discover their own best answers?

Finding the Path
Even though the previous examples followed a specific safety initiative led by a consultant, the same principles apply to any safety improvement initiative, including those internally implemented.  The person leading the change should identify the right questions and the correct individuals to ask to customize the process to the site for maximized opportunities for success.

W. Edwards Deming said that, “People support what they help create.”  Asking the right questions helps leaders and involved personnel to not only create and support, but to experience the discovery of the right path to improvement.  No other single skill is more important than the ability to discover how to improve.  No other tool develops this skill more effectively than asking the right questions.

We all seek answers to the challenges to safety improvement.  But perhaps we are putting the cart before the horse.  What if the first step is not getting the elegant answer, but asking the pertinent question?  The word “why” has been overused by children on their parents, but maybe it is a key to effective, efficient and lasting safety improvement.  What are the best ways for particular sites to improve their safety performance?  Even the gurus don’t have the specific answers to these questions for each organization, but they can ask the right questions.

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