#608     Innovative Leader            Volume 13, Number 9                 September-December 2004
Be Continuously Creative – Ask Smart Questions 
by Steven S. Benson, William J. Chandon, and Gerald Nadler 

Steven S. Benson and Dr. William J. Chandon are vice-presidents and Dr. Gerald Nadler is president of The Center for Breakthrough Thinking Inc. Drs. Nadler and Chandon authored Smart Questions: Learn to Ask the Right Questions for Powerful Results (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2004), from which this article is adapted.

The emphasis on creativity in all parts of society grows every year as a response to living in a dynamic business environment and world.  Everyone is exhorted to be creative.  Businesses seek new product innovations and creative marketing strategies; governments look for creative ways to implement technology solutions; and communities and families seek creative methods to live together in harmony.

Unfortunately, these calls for creativity are usually broad exhortations to get “great” ideas (think out of the box), and are imbedded in a conventional problem-solving approach that asks for creativity as only one step of the approach.

Our theme:  Creativity must be sought in all phases of any planning, design, problem solving, development, and implementation.   Of course, the expected “great ideas” at each phase will be different. However, creativity in each phase is necessary to obtain, in the least amount of time and use of resources, a significantly more effective and innovative solution with a higher likelihood of implementation.  Consider this real case:

The company is a very large national provider of semi-perishable products. One warehouse out of the company’s twenty-four national warehouses was experiencing high costs, excessive overtime, poor delivery records, and diminished product quality at its loading dock. The manager of warehouses and the supervisor of this warehouse decided to assign an engineer to determine how to solve these problems.

Eliot, the engineer given the assignment, was asked “How can we solve the problems on the loading dock?”  After a couple of weeks of getting data about flows, costs, damage, and errors in cases loaded and putting it into models of the processes, Eliot believed he had located most of the causes of the problems – namely, misplaced order documents, double and triple handling of cartons, absenteeism, etc. He thought about how creatively to solve the problems, and finally decided to automate the loading dock.

Eliot and the warehouse supervisor were pleasantly surprised when Eliot’s analysis concluded the $60,000 automation installation cost would be paid back in 8 months from the savings in operating costs.  As the two of them discussed the dramatic improvement, they decided the change should be made in all 24 warehouses!

The twenty-four warehouse cost proposal of $1.5 million was approved by the senior warehouse manager and the director of distribution.  Paul, the vice president for general operations, glanced quickly at the proposal and told Cliff, one of his staff assistants, to "Look this over and let me know in about a week if I should approve it.”  Cliff read through the report and his initial reaction was that the proposal looked good.

(What is the likelihood that you and most people in Cliff’s position, after verifying a few calculations and cost estimates, would have told your boss that the proposal is OK to approve?)
Cliff considered who among his colleagues and other company employees might be involved with him in this review.  He asked Bob, Terry and George to work on the assignment because they were most familiar with warehouse operations and the one week deadline didn’t give him time to get others involved. 

Cliff launched the first meeting by stating, "Let's start by asking about the purposes of the loading dock, the place where the initial problem was identified. Think about the purposes of the loading dock in as many ways as you can."

After the group had listed approximately ten purposes, Cliff continued: "Now, let's organize these and other purposes we think of as we go along from small to large scope. We start by asking about what the smallest scope purpose is. Then we will continue to ask 'what's the purpose of that purpose' for each of the successively larger purposes until we have included the purposes of our customers and our customers' customers.”

From this array of purposes, the group selected "to distribute company products to dealers" as the purpose that really needed to be accomplished. 

Cliff built on the enthusiasm this focus purpose generated, and asked the group to develop as many possible “ideal” or Future Solution options. The group recognized that all the new options were more forward thinking and creative than automating the loading docks.  After developing an outline of five Future Solution options, the group had a sense of possible direction.  The group selected “to ship directly from their factories to customers based on electronic ordering” as a good Future Solution for two years from now. A surprising consequence – the company could sell the twenty-four warehouses!

Cliff posed the following question to the group: “How can we make this idea workable in the now and at the same time work toward this Future Solution?"

The group defined the Future Solution in more detail and identified steps required to begin its implementation.  The plan was adaptive; it provided for new concepts to be introduced as preceding changes were completed – we call this plan a Living Solution.  For example, the plan contemplated rearranging certain manufacturing activities to give each manufacturing location a greater variety of products to ship to order, and four warehouses were identified to handle product shipments to small dealers.  Included in the plan were various factors including (1) training current employees for new positions, (2) arranging for possible early retirements, (3) designing interrelationships required among the remaining four warehouses, the factories, and the shippers, and (4) personnel re-assignments.  At their next meeting, Cliff told Paul – “Do not approve the proposal to automate the loading docks!”  Paul gasped at the news and then mimicked in astonishment, “What are you saying I should do?”

Cliff’s nonchalant response was, “Sell the 24 warehouses and ship directly from the factory floor to our customers!”  Now Paul was really aghast!  Cliff outlined the Future Solution and explained how the Living Solution recommendation of selling 20 warehouses and keeping four for low volume dealers would advance the company toward the Future Solution.  In addition, Cliff shared the proposed action plan for the next 6-12 months and the additional planning necessary to prepare for the next changes to move the solution closer to the Future Solution.

Although the automation of the loading docks may have been a creative high-tech solution, it was clear this solution would have been a costly solution for achieving the wrong purpose.  The Future Solution in the company’s distribution operations became a strategic competitive advantage.  As the group continued to find ways of moving the system to the Future Solution through alliances and partnerships, an interesting turn of events occurred.  Discussions with several other companies with semi-perishable products in non-competitive fields resulted in an expansion of the Living Solution; the expanded four warehouses could be used to ship products for the other companies.  This opened up another profit center for Cliff’s company.

Asking Smart Questions is far more than an exhortatory statement.  The four key questions of the “Smart Questions Approach” illustrated in this story are:
* People Involvement – who should become a part of the solution creation effort?
* Purposes – what are a number of possible purposes for solving the problem to determine which purpose is really needed?
* Future Solution – what ”ideal” solution should serve as a guide to deciding what to do now?
* Living Solution – what can we do now and in the future to continue to work toward the Future Solution?

In addition to the continuous creativity inherent in following the flow of these key questions, there is another perspective about each of them that adds to the continuousness of creativity: For each one of the questions, use the basic creativity concept of divergence-convergence.  That is, List (or diverge) – what are as many creative ideas as possible for that question; Organize – how can the ideas be organized into viable options to consider for that question; and Decide (or converge) – which option should be selected for that phase?

In other words, the outcome of this line of questioning is a much more creative and effective mode of thinking.  It produces a Living Solution that leads to a mindset that change is always to be expected – and creatively sought all of the time – to move toward the Future Solution and its later reformulation.

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2006 Winston J. Brill & Associates. All rights reserved.