Did You Ask A Good Question Today?

Over the weekend, I came across the following story, which was published in the New York Times back on January 19, 1988:

Isidor I. Rabi, the Nobel laureate in physics was once asked, ”Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in your neighborhood?”

”My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That difference – asking good questions – made me become a scientist!”

Rabi’s mother intuitively understood that asking good questions is the path to insightful learning, or as Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana put it in Teaching Students to Ask Their Own Questions (Harvard Education Letter, September/October 2011), “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.”

Unfortunately, as Rothstein and Santana go on to say, “this skill is rarely, if ever, deliberately taught to students from kindergarten through high school. 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.”

If instead of physics Isidor Rabi had pursued a career in supply chain management, I’m sure he would have been just as successful, and he would have credited his success to the same skill that made him a Nobel laureate: his ability to ask questions, and to refine and prioritize them.

If nothing else, supply chain management is a discipline of constant inquiry. It’s about continuously asking Why?, How?, What?, When?, and Who? to find solutions to problems as they emerge (which happens every day) and to develop new ideas that pave the way to innovation and continuous improvement (which should happen every day too). As the young woman who won this year’s Food Shippers of America John J. Murphy Scholarship said in her acceptance speech, “I chose a career in supply chain management because I know I won’t live the same day twice.”

However, in my experience as an educator and practitioner, I agree with Rothstein and Santata: asking good questions is a skill many of us lack. So, how can we develop it? Rothstein and Santana, along with their colleagues at the Right Question Institute, 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, which I first made a couple of years ago in Try This Exercise with Your Supply Chain Team, is for supply chain leaders (“teachers”) to introduce the QFT process at their next team meeting, and present team members (“students”) 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 an hour.
  • Statement: Our 3PL partners will make more profit next year, and we’ll save more money.
  • Statement: The West Coast ports will shut down for six weeks starting in September.
  • 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.
  • Visual Aid: A picture of a child working in a foreign factory.

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.

You can start with 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.