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The power of "why"; how to sharpen your questions for better answers (#99)

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Jean Latting
November 10, 2023
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Brian talks about the Baldrige framework, how it changed American business, and the need to hardwire equity and inclusion into business practices.

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Brian Lassiter and the power of questions

Jean 00:11

Hello, everybody. Today we're going to talk about the power of questions. If we want to have real equity, diversity, and inclusion in our organizations – if we’re going to be the initiators of change - we must be willing to ask questions to truly understand one another.

Let’s meet Brian Lassiter, President and CEO of Performance Excellence Network of Minnesota. This network is part of an overall larger effort dedicated to helping people in organizations improve what they do, and get better results through a great set of questions.

You are CEO and President of the Performance Excellence Network in Minnesota. Tell people about it.

Brian 01:44

This is a nonprofit created in 1987 when quality was first becoming a thing. Our mission was really to help to teach manufacturers how to improve quality and productivity and competitiveness. We now serve all types of organizations from certainly businesses, healthcare organizations, school districts and higher ed institutions, nonprofit agencies, governmental agencies.

Jean 05:23

How did you get interested in performance excellence, organizational excellence?

Brian 05:31

I'm kind of a systems thinker, how things work or don't work and always trying to find ways to improve.

What brought me to Minnesota was a job at a large insurance company, as part of the Corporate Quality Department. Our whole purpose was to improve process, improve systems, improve how the organization was run. And that's where I was first exposed to Baldrige.

Baldrige Excellence Framework

Jean 06:51

Define “Baldrige.”

Brian 07:54

Malcolm Baldrige was the Secretary of Commerce under President Reagan and a big advocate for business. The whole Baldrige effort started when NBC ran a white paper in the early '80s called "If Japan Can, Why Can't We?"1 This was on how Japanese businesses were just running differently than American businesses. They focused on people a lot more, on culture, on process, and on the customer. W. Edwards Deming and Juran and some of the others in the TQM movement had been saying this for decades, and we weren't really paying attention.

And so the Baldrige Program is designed to advance the principles of excellence, the principles of continuous improvement through all facets of our economy.

It is an evidence-based, non-prescriptive framework of seven categories: leadership, strategy, customer, measurement information and knowledge management, workforce and operations. Six process categories. Category seven is results.

There’s about 270 or 280 questions that sit under those seven categories, each representing how an organization systematically does something. They are not prescriptive. They don't tell you how to do it, but they do represent best practice. These questions change every two years.

Jean 11:00

What is one leadership question in the leadership category?

Brian 11:12

Off the top of my head: how do you deploy vision and values throughout the organization? How do you communicate? How do you ensure effective two-way communication?

Jean 11:29

So organizations fill out this long, lengthy questionnaire and submit it to Baldrige and get evaluated. And then what happens?

Brian 11:48

You can answer all 270 questions, or there are shortcuts: you can answer a subset of the questions or a few of them to just get started. And it's fascinating to answer the questions as a leadership team. Just by asking the questions and forming consensus about how things really are done, there's real power and self-discovery.

It’s a blueprint, and it's a diagnostic, like an annual physical.

“The Power of Why”

Jean 13:34

I found you through this wonderful article called "The Power of Why: How Asking the Right Questions Can Change the Future,"2 published in February 2021.

You wrote, "Try this at your next staff meeting, ask your team, what are your organization's or department’s or team's strategic planning challenges? And you may find several different answers." I will bet that everybody who's working at Leading Consciously will give different answers to this very basic, fundamental question.

Brian 14:36

Some of the Baldrige questions are very simple: Tell us about your customer base and your market segments that you're serving and what are their needs.

What are the strategic challenges we face? And if you go around the room and ask eight people, they may have eight very different perspectives about what's truly important to address to the business.

[see also blog post #63: Did you mean what I thought you meant? Jean interviews Barry Regan]

Jean 15:11

You mentioned the seven categories that Baldrige uses, but they've now added equity, diversity, and inclusion. Is it a new category? Talk to us about how Baldrige treats that?

Brian 15:34

It's actually been in the framework for a number of years. But this last iteration of the Baldrige framework, the 2021/22 version, really emphasizes the concept of equity and inclusion, pretty much throughout the framework. I think that inequities are hardwired into the system. It's the attempt of the Baldrige framework to hardwire equities into the system so that leaders and professionals are far more thoughtful of how they are inclusive and equitable across the whole system that they're managing.

The four levels of Baldrige criteria

Jean 16:57

Do the Baldrige criteria have actual questions for you to ask yourself, to see if you're on target in this area?

Brian 17:21

Yes, but there are no answers. There's no companion teacher guide to this set of questions. You have to figure out what the answers are yourself as a leadership team.

First level: what is your approach? Do you have a process? Does your organization systematically do whatever the question's asking about? In the case of leadership, do you have an effective way to have two-way communication? Or in the customer segment, how do you systematically build relationships with your customers?

And it's not just having a process, Deployment is the second level. To what extent have you deployed it or implemented it throughout the organization?

The third is learning, defined as a systematic evaluation and improvement cycle. So it's not just having a process and deploying it throughout the organization. Is the process worth anything? Is it generating the results it's intended to generate? Or if not, how do you improve the process to continue to make it better over time?

The fourth is alignment and integration. And that's really how consistent and how connected that process is to everything else in the system.

This is where you're using input from your customers to inform what products you're offering. Input from your employees, your people, to inform what benefits and policies and offerings you give your people. So it's the connections of the dots between those seven categories.

[see also blog post #60: How to understand the world in a new light: Listen]

Jean 20:26

I want to go from this framework that you've laid out, to your article, "The Power of Why: How Asking the Right Questions Can Change the Future."

I'm imagining people say, "Well, if they don't tell us what to do, what good is that? I mean, I'm not looking for more questions, I have my own set of questions. What I'm looking for are the right answers." How would you respond to that?

Brian 21:08

I think profound knowledge really is trying to ask the question multiple times over and over and over, so that you're dialing in on what might be a better answer, maybe not a perfect answer.

But if you stop asking the questions, then you're almost de facto going backwards, because everything else is moving so quickly around you that the answers you gave last month, last year, last decade are not going to satisfy today's requirements for almost anything.

Jean 22:53

Is there an art to asking questions, so you don't get dinged?

Brian 23:27

Asking a question that you're really interested in learning the answer to is probably the first step. And asking an open-ended question is certainly more powerful than a closed ended question. And then, take the time to listen.

I think there's a lot of reasons why people aren't interested in answers anymore. They think they know the answer. And I don't think that's healthy.

Jean 25:15

What stops people from asking questions?

Brian 25:32

Kids are always asking questions. Somewhere along the way we kind of beat it out of them. The educational system rewards knowing answers more than it does asking the right questions. And then we stop asking as many questions and start believing we know what the answers are.

Jean 26:59

And this field, this pitfall of racial and social justice, people are terrified to ask a bloody question. How can leaders set up a dynamic where question asking is okay?

Brian 27:50

My belief is in an organizational setting, it comes down to leadership, and leaders own the culture, or at least help to shape the culture of an organization, whether or not it's inclusive, whether or not it's open.

So it starts with leaders creating an environment where those conversations can take place, where people can ask questions, where they can show courage without fear of any retribution, or whatever the answers are. We're too busy making widgets to take time really to reflect on these important questions.

Jean 28:55

I keep thinking people want an organizational environment, where they can be free to learn, where they can contribute, where they can be respected for who they are. And question asking is part of that. Learning together is part of that. And yet, then they get the opportunity and say nothing, or are afraid.

Brian 29:24

Exactly. And it is a shame. But I'll tell you what, when you see it work you can see the other side too.

When you see leaders that have been really intentional in creating spaces where these conversations can take place, those organizations usually are thriving. They're a healthier workforce, and the team culture is stronger and people trust each other.

Jean 29:58

Your personal opinion: is it possible for someone at some middle level saying well, I can't do anything because head honcho is not doing anything?

Lead from where you are

Brian 30:02

Well, my simple answer is you lead from where you are.

If you manage a team or a project or a small group, you create the environment within that team or project or group to allow inclusiveness and openness to take place. And then people might take notice: what's going on over here? Why do they seem to be having a better time or producing better results?

Jean 31:45

You’ve alluded to some of the criteria for a good question. Can you offhand think of an example of a bad question, and then reframe it into a good question?

Brian 32:15

Why did you do it that way, which implies it was the wrong way. You've introduced bias and judgment into how you ask the question. To just reframe it, tell me more about why you did X, Y, and Z.

Jean 32:52

I asked someone who's working with us, tell me the process. How did it go from the idea to you to her, what does our post say, how did this happen? And then finally, I got it. I said, yes. Great idea. I'm so glad you did it. I'm so glad it happened. I just wanted to understand how it went from here. And so implicit in that is beginning with some kind of statement of approval. This is not a gotcha question.

Brian 34:36

Maybe that's the better way. I just want to learn. I'm not here to get you. I just want to learn more.

I think that you're illustrating something really important here and, and just being deliberate and really thoughtful about how we set up questions.

Jean 35:34

When my daughter was in the fifth grade, she said the teacher wouldn't explain it to me. And I said, "What did you ask the teacher?" She said, "I told her I didn't understand." I said, "Well, how was she ever going to answer that question? She's already explained that once. You have to say, 'I understand A, B, and C. I think I understand a little F. I'm curious about D.'" Give her something to work with, rather than expecting her to start again, from scratch. Do you observe that as a phenomenon?

Brian 36:41

Oh, absolutely. And I think there's real wisdom in your question here: if there are parts that are still unclear, then it's the responsibility of the person asking to be really clear about what it is that they need help with.

Questioning is a process too and you should think about what you want to learn on the back end, and how do you set the question up?

Jean 41:46

Joe wants to ask Joyce, a trans woman, a question because Joe has a trans customer.

Brian 41:52

So there's a real legitimate business need in asking these question.

The best advice I would give Joe is to ask the question, and maybe preface the question that it's going to be personal and just get permission, can I ask you a personal question about your gender identity, because I have a follow up question related to a customer?

Jean 42:41

So set the stage, explain this is going to be out of the ordinary, this is going to be a personal question. There's a legitimate reason for me to ask. I need this information. Will you be comfortable?

And what I have seen is that when that dialogue happens, when that exchange happens, the whole organization prospers beyond anything the two of them could ever imagine. Because they now have a level of comfort with each other that's infectious, and that permeates the rest of the team.

Brian 43:56

I couldn't agree more. And to your point, it's contagious, that will only spread in a good way, I think to the rest of the team.

Jean 44:13

How can people reach you?

Brian 44:15

Go to the website baldrigealliance.org. Click on your state and find the program that serves you.

And there's another program called Communities of Excellence, which you can also find on that website, that takes the Baldrige concepts into a community setting.

Brian Lassiter

President/CEO, Performance Excellence Network (Minnesota Council for Quality)

Brian Lassiter was elected president /CEO of the Performance Excellence Network (Minnesota Council for Quality) in the summer of 2001. Before his election, Brian held positions with: Ian Alliott Consulting (Managing Director), Norstan Consulting (Principal Consultant), The St. Paul Companies (Corporate Quality Consultant), PricewaterhouseCoopers (Consultant), and Boatmen's National Bank (Quality Manager). In these roles, Brian has worked with hundreds of organizations in a variety of industries to help them improve their performance and competitiveness.

Brian has served nearly 25 years in various roles with the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program, including Examiner, Senior Examiner, Alumni Examiner, and on the Board of Overseers (2012-15). Brian serves as Chair of the Alliance for Performance Excellence, the national consortium of all state/regional quality/excellence awards, and is on the board and faculty of Communities of Excellence 2026, a nonprofit that is working to apply the principles of Baldrige to solve community challenges and improve community outcomes.

Connect with Brian:


The views and opinions expressed in this or other blog posts at www.leadingconsciously.com are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Leading Consciously. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion, and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, organization, company, individual, or anyone or anything.

Questions to ask yourself

  1. Practice asking questions that are open-ended and non-judgmental. How difficult is it?
  2. Think through the four levels of Baldrige questions. Can you articulate answers for your organization?

Conscious Change skills
covered in this blog:

  • Build effective relationships
    • Engage in powerful listening
    • Develop skills in inquiry and openness
    • Learn how to give, receive, and seek feedback
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Leading Consciously

We are a leadership development firm that helps people and organizations create resilient, sustainable, multicultural, and inclusive settings. The ability to lead consciously can help you gain true awareness and earn the respect and trust of others.  

It’s the assumptions we have about people’s lives that are the biggest obstacles to growth, awareness, and success. We help you understand how those assumptions are preventing you from becoming the best you can be as an organization, an inclusive leader, and a person.

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