Earlier this year, I made a simple request to a group of 25 supply chain executives: go online to a discussion forum I had created and post a question about a supply chain topic you would like to get feedback and ideas about from your peers. The question could be about a project or initiative they were working on, or about any industry topic that interested them. I gave them thirty days to ask one question, and as an incentive, if everybody in the group asked a question, I would randomly select a member and donate $100 to a charity of their choice. I sent an email reminder every week, and at the end of the month, to my great surprise and disappointment, only two people had asked a question.

Why?

The easiest explanation is that these are very busy supply chain executives with no time to spare, so my request just fell through the cracks or never made it to the top of their priority list.

Or maybe they didn’t know how to post a question on a discussion forum or felt uncomfortable using an online tool.

But I came across an article recently that offers another possible explanation: asking questions is a skill that some (perhaps many) people lack.

“When students know how to ask their own questions, they take greater ownership of their learning, deepen comprehension, and make new connections and discoveries on their own,” write Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana in Teaching Students to Ask Their Own Questions. “However, this skill is rarely, if ever, deliberately taught to students from kindergarten through high school [emphasis mine]. Typically, questions are seen as the province of teachers, who spend years figuring out how to craft questions and fine-tune them to stimulate students’ curiosity or engage them more effectively. We have found that teaching students to ask their own questions can accomplish these same goals while teaching them a critical lifelong skill.”

Rothstein and Santana, along with colleagues at the Right Question Institute, have developed a process called the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) that “helps students learn how to produce their own questions, improve them, and strategize on how to use them.” The QFT has six key steps, which are described in more detail in the article:

  1. Teachers Design a Question Focus
  2. Students Produce Questions
  3. Students Improve Their Questions
  4. Students Prioritize Their Questions
  5. Students and Teachers Decide Next Steps
  6. Students Reflect on What They Have Learned

My recommendation is for supply chain leaders (“teachers”) to try this process with their supply chain teams (“students”). At the next team meeting, rather than go through the same old motions and routine, introduce the QFT process and present the team with a Question Focus (QFocus), which is “a prompt that can be presented in the form of a statement or a visual or aural aid to focus and attract student attention and quickly stimulate the formation of questions.” Here are some QFocus ideas I came up with:

  • Statement: Our customers order a product online and receive it within four hours.
  • Statement: Our 3PL partners will make more profit next year, and we’ll save more money.
  • Visual Aid: A picture of an empty store shelf and another with misplaced items.
  • Visual Aid: A picture of a line of trucks waiting to be unloaded at the warehouse.

The process of developing questions, and refining and prioritizing them, will lead you to new ideas and insights about how to improve your supply chain. Finding the “right” answer to a supply chain problem or opportunity begins by asking the “right” questions. We just have to develop and strengthen that skill.

If this all sounds like a lot of work, then scale it back to just yourself. Make the time to ask a question every week about something you’re working on or interests you and see where the search for answers takes you. I promise, you won’t be disappointed.