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3 Interview Questions to Gauge Candidates’ Problem-Solving Capacity

by Derrick Redding
June 1, 2017

3 Interview Questions to Gauge Candidates’ Problem-Solving Capacity

by Derrick Redding
June 1, 2017 | Comments (6)

I read Toyota Kata by Mike Rother about two years ago and loved it. Especially the second part.

In that part of the book Rother describes the process of coaching improvement and problem solving. I reflected on previous and current activities where I had been a coach for continuous improvement (CI) and problem solving. In the past, I may have expected leaders to problem solve and maybe even listed problem solving on a job description. But that’s not the same thing as developing problem solving skills.

Before progressing, I need to share my initial skepticism when I was recommended the book. My eyes rolled. Come on, Toyota isn’t that good! In full disclosure, I worked in Toyota Assembly and so books about Toyota usually leave me wondering if I worked at the same company. I’m not knocking Toyota. It’s a great company and I learned a lot, even more since I left. But this book actually connected to my experiences. 

Now, moving on. Rother points out something that I think few leaders consider. If problem solving is the foundation for improvement, how do leaders teach and coach it? In this role as President of an automotive supplier, I gradually began to explore problem solving in interviews with potential leaders interested in joining our company. I was surprised how difficult a question like, “How do you develop problem solving skills?” was. From many job interviews, I found that this is not a common expectation or practice.

Below are a few examples of how I started exploring finding fit for a problem-solving culture during interviews:

  1.  “How do you develop team work across functional areas?”  This is a foundation question for problem solving. If someone can’t work on teams or, more importantly, develop said teams, then everyone under their umbrella may struggle to problem solve with others.  I look for answers that demonstrate leadership for setting common targets for stakeholders and enabled folks from disparate groups to engage in serving customers. Vague descriptions about putting people together didn’t cut it.

    Example: “I make sure there are clear targets and accountability in place that match the customer’s needs. I enable and support teams across all involved areas and provide resources to help them learn teamwork. I once joined a loosed-centralized organization in which to facilitate improved teamwork, I created business units for each customer account. Each unit had a manager, program manager, engineer – all different functions that would learn to improved team work together.”

  2. “Please describe a technical problem you solved. What was the problem statement and what was the root cause?” In this case, you’re looking for a clear and concise issue that adversely affected a stakeholder – plus the root cause. Many times, candidates would tell me a great story but skip over the root cause completely. Other times I would often hear causes that were symptoms of a larger problem, not root causes. So, I would respond with, “What was the cause of that?” to their alleged “root cause.” Answers that focused on “people not doing their job” or “it was an accident” indicated a weak understanding of the role of management.

    Example: "Our plant dealt with low torque on a rear swing-arm attachment on the chassis of a vehicle. This was significant as the rear swing arm is a critical safety point. At first people thought it was operator error, but after problem solving with my team, we realized that the actual tool used for securing the swing arm wasn't designed to apply the necessary amount of torque.  We didn’t catch this during production trials."

  3.  “How do you develop problem solving skills for your managers and staff?” This is not an easy question, but it may be the most crucial for potential leaders. I would listen for examples of concrete, regular activities that demonstrated coaching and practicing problem solving.

    Example: “Every Thursday I’d have a call with plant managers to discuss safety. Whenever they had a recordable injury, they had to fill out a 5 Why document and present it to me. If it felt like they were rushing (which it often did) I would slow them down a little bit, and walk through the documents with them, and coach them in front of everyone so they all learned. I’d also hold quarterly CI workshops for leaders. We’d train on lean tools for the first two days and spend the next day and a half going through as many kaizens as possible in small groups.” 

Our in-house recruiter Anthony gradually started to evaluate these types of experiences and behaviors during first-round interviews before passing them on to me (I was President of the company). Over time, candidates that got to the second and third rounds were much better-qualified and our success rate for finding better candidates quickly increased. Although it took more than a year, the organization practiced and improved their problem-solving skills.  Later, the results in increased profitability followed. We all won.

Now, in some cases I had folks who I thought might be able to perform the actions of daily management, but they couldn’t describe how they lead. I might even interview a person with good experience who couldn’t answer any of these questions. It’s important to note that this shouldn't be a dealbreaker. These are difficult questions, and just because a candidate can’t describe their problem solving capability doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have any. So to give them another chance, I would ask them about accomplishments or an interest outside of work and see if any of the skills I was looking for jumped out at me. This was in case they actually did have the ability, but struggled to describe it the way I had in mind.

For example, I once had a candidate who seem qualified but couldn’t describe her problem-solving capability. I asked her what she liked to do outside work, and she replied, “Cooking.”

I then asked her about her typical cooking process, and she responded that she never cooked anything without all of her ingredients and recipes being organized and in plain sight. She also gave a few more examples very similar to 5S. It was clear that she was a good fit for our problem-solving culture – and I was right.

Finally, I do want to add that these questions are not a substitute for daily coaching. They are just to see if the candidates fit your needs or if they have a more/less advanced skill set. As a leader you will still need to coach your people. Just remember that you can’t hire your way to a problem solving culture. Coach your people, lead with respect, and the problem-solving culture will come to you.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  culture,  leadership,  problem solving
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6 Comments | Post a Comment
kevin kobett June 01, 2017

Nice to see a post concerning the hiring process.

My favorite interview question is, "What made you happy on your last job?" Of course, we are hoping the candidate was happiest solving a problem.

This would be my answer:

http://leanstories.com/?p=31



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Mark Graban June 04, 2017
2 People AGREE with this comment

I see some hospitals, through Lean and Kaizen, start interviewing front line staff based on more than technical or clinical skills... they're also starting to look at culture fit.

If you ask a nurse or medical technologist or whomever, "Tell me about a time in your last job when you spoke up about an idea for improvement..."

They might respond in a few ways:

1) Roll their eyes and ask why they would do that (maybe rule out these candidates)

2) They might say they have lots of ideas but their old boss never listened (these folks have potential)

3) They might talk about their past workplace and their culture of contnuous improvement.

I wouldn't fault candidate #2 for not having been in a Kaizen culture. They're probably changing jobs for a reason and could thrive in your environment.

Even candidate #1... it might not be their fault that previous workplaces have made them cynical. Some follow up questions might be needed to see if they can come around in a new environment or if they've been too damaged by previous managers.

 



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Eduardo Muniz June 05, 2017

1, Please elaborate on "I look for answers that demonstrate leadership for setting common targets for stakeholders and enabled folks from disparate groups to engage in serving customers" What kind of answers would you get?

 

2. Re: "I would respond with, “What was the cause of that?” to their alleged “root cause.” What if their answer is I DON'T KNOW? What do you do?

 

3. Can you elaborate on What could be "examples of concrete, regular activities that demonstrated coaching and practicing problem solving"? I am interested. Thanks in advance. I look forward to learning from you



Reply »

Derrick Redding June 05, 2017

Hi Eduardo:

Thank you for your questions.   Here are some answers:

1. I'm looking for answers that show targets that are important to customers, usually require a team, and not just one person or one department.   This is a pre-condition for problem-solving in most industries, where teamwork is needed to solve customer problems.  I'm also looking for signs that the person can develop and coach people.  If a person can't coach teambuilding, that person will probably struggle with coaching problems solving.  

2.  Usually, answering with "I don't know," is not a bad thing, especially when investigating a problem and the causes.  But since the candidate is picking the example, I would expect that they would choose an example where they fully understood the root cause.  If they don't explain the root cause, I'm testing the candidate two ways when I ask, "Why?" - do they understand what is a good root cause and second, how do they take coaching through questioning from others.  

3. Some examples of problem-solving practice include regular activities where managers present problem-solving to their peers such as A3 reports on major issues, CI organizations with problem-solving training & practice, design reviews, innovation technical defenses, etc..  In short, this is a type of daily management for leaders, but it takes patience and commitment to teach others, rather than give them the answers.



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Eduardo Muniz June 05, 2017

1. What kind of answers will "show targets are important to customers"?

What signs tell you that the person can develop/coach people?

2. What if the answert stilll is "I DON'T KNOW?'

 

3. wHY WOULD THEY USE A3 REPORTS?

 

Thanks in advance 

 

Cheers



Reply »

Derrick Redding June 06, 2017

Hi Eduardo:

 

Thanks again for your interest and follow-up questions.

 

Answers:

  1. Typical targets that customers care about are quality, delivery, and cost.  So if a potential manager says that they implemented targets for an entire team such as Q, D, and C, I can tell that they are trying to align measurement systems with customer needs, and not just measure a single person or department in isolation.  An example of an isolated target, maybe to measure an Engineer on % of drawings completed on time.  If the drawings won’t meet the quality requirements of the end customer or can’t be made in manufacturing, you will likely end up with a poor design, even though the Engineer did his job on time.  In this case, the Engineer may be working in isolation, i.e. not on a team.
  2. That’s ok, if they still say “I don’t know.”  It may mean they aren’t the right candidate.  If someone is unable to identify the differences between causes and root causes, they may not have the experience in problem-solving yet, and probably are not ready to coach others in problem-solving.  
  3. A3’s are a type of problem-solving report.  There are many different names for problem-solving reports in different industries.  The main point is that there is a regular opportunity for presenting of problem-solving reports by one manager to other managers and/or a Kata Coach.  


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