Tuesday, December 03, 2002

The Curse of the Vague Request

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, my wife saw a neighbor ringing a bell for the Salvation Army Chrismas kettle at our local WalMart. As she greeted him, Craig just smiled and said "John is persuasive!"

"John" is a mutual friend and would hardly come across as "persuasive". He is active in helping the Salvation Army in their outreach to homeless and needy in our community. He is quiet, shy and unassuming. Yet he makes very clear requests. I'm sure that his request to Craig went something like this: "Craig, will you please ring a bell for Salvation Army at the West Lafayette Walmart from 2-3pm this Saturday?" And then he waited for the response. I know John. He will accept "no." He won't think less of me if I don't do it. He will accept "Gee, how about from 11 till Noon?" He won't think less of me if I renegotiate. But he does make clear requests. And the Salvation Army is better for it.

How would most of us handle this? "If anyone wants to ring a bell, please sign up in the back." How many people sign up? Only those plagued by guilt. A vague request is doomed to failure. The opposite is a responsible request.

What is a responsible request?

  • I direct it to a specific person.
  • I state specifically what the desired behavior or task is.
  • I state when I would like it done
  • I ask a person who is reasonably capable of doing the task.
  • I am willing to "no" or renegotiate.

Why is this an issue? A lean system must happen by people not by techniques. This means asking people to do things. To participate in a blitz. To help in a 5S. To answer one of the "5 Whys." To propose a specific improvement.

In a lean environment, there should be, literally, hundreds of specific requests each day like this. And people must feel free to say no. And not feel that they will be retaliated against for doing so. Respect is key. And, if it is done well, trust happens, because people do what they say they will do. And only with a deep level of trust can innovation truly happen.

Try this practice exercise in making responsible requests.

  1. Make two responsible requests in the next two hours after you read this.
  2. Use the list above, strictly, to rate your request
  3. Note what happens, both in terms of how/if the request was received and what you sensed as you do it
  4. Send me an email summarizing your observations(click here to email me).
  5. I'll publish your responses on Thursday, if you will give me permission, without your name.

Let's see what we can learn on this.

Feel free to forward to a friend.

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