Ed Kless: On French Fries and Effective Questions

Someone once asked me how I get so much “insider” information from Sage for my blog posts, especially when it comes to Sage Summit. My answer was pretty simple: It’s not insider information. All I did was ask questions. Fortune favors the bold, and it’s amazing how much you can learn when you think to yourself, “The worst they can tell me is no.”

When I think back on it, I think that’s why I decided to major in journalism way back when I was still in community college. It’s not that I enjoyed writing (at the time, I didn’t) – I enjoyed asking questions.

To say I’m the curious sort is an understatement. I’m like a sponge – I can’t get enough information to learn about the way things work, whether it’s mechanical, technical, or otherwise. I was probably one of those 4-year-olds who pestered their parents incessantly with “Why?”

For most of my life, I thought people were annoyed by me asking questions. Recently, I figured out you learn much more by asking questions. I also found out people appreciate being asked questions. But I could never figure out why – until I saw a presentation by Ed Kless.

‘Shut up and eat your french fries’ is not a viable answer in business

Kless, the senior director of Sage Accountants Solutions, always finds a way to tie two things together in his educational sessions. The best example may be his recent presentation, “Shut Up and Eat Your French Fries: Asking Effective Questions.” (I’ll wait for your head to stop tilting curiously after reading that title.)

This is a picture of the author, Amanda Tomaini Lamela, taking a selfie with Ed Kless appearing over her shoulder in the background at a podium, pointing at Amanda.

Ed Kless, who taught me the value of the selfie, impressed me with his presentation, “Shut Up and Eat Your French Fries: Asking Effective Questions.”

His blog post about the presentation – and the included educational session video – explains how a simple stifling message can stop innovation in its tracks in the business world.

The quote, “shut up and eat your french fries,” comes from a stand-up comedy routine. The comedian begins his story being internally outraged when a parent in McDonald’s said that statement to their child after asking, “Why is the sky blue?” “How dare a parent say that to a child!” he said to himself. “When I become a parent, I will answer every question my child has!”

Until he became a parent. And eventually had a 4-year-old. And realized after a two-hour block of his daughter asking “why?” when he said they couldn’t go out in a rainstorm and every answer that followed. You eventually end it with, “shut up and eat your french fries.”

(Note: If you read Ed’s post or watch the presentation – which I highly recommend – please be aware they’re both from 2016. The comedian in question was recently disgraced in all that’s gone on in Hollywood. Ed still uses the quote unattributed in this presentation, but no longer shows the comedy routine. The overall presentation is still worth watching.)

While “shut up and eat your french fries” may be a valid response to a gainsaying 4-year-old, Kless said that’s the worst thing that can happen in a business. And it does happen. “If you ask ‘why’ more than twice in a business meeting, you get told to shut up and eat your French fries,” Kless said.

But why do businesspeople shut down questions? It’s pretty simple: They don’t want to hear the answers. It could point out inadequacies and deficiencies. It could shed light on poor mechanics or procedures. And, it could also lead to change – something people in general aren’t comfortable with.

But shining a light on all of these issues can cure an ailing company – even when it doesn’t know it’s sick. Funnily enough, we’ve talked about this a lot recently, although it was in a different wrapper.

Question your business processes on a regular basis

During his “Business Systems 101” session at Cultivate’17, Greg Lafferty hammered home the importance of reviewing your own processes before making the move to implement a new software system (or implement any major change). Lafferty highlighted the USa Process used by The Marmon Group, several of which are our customers.

Any time a Marmon company looks to make a change, they are required to go through the USa Process, which stands for understand, simplify, and automate. They must:

  • Understand and document their own processes
  • Simplify their processes by “trimming the fat”
  • Then automate to improve lean process flow

When we first started working in the greenhouse industry, one of the biggest hurdles we helped growers overcome was to eliminate “because we’ve always done it that way.” This is complicated when so many large-scale greenhouse growers are multi-generational family run businesses, and “the way we’ve always done it” was the way Grandpa or Dad did it. But habits, traditions, or routines aren’t sacred ground, especially when you’re running a business.

Questions in business

Asking questions is the best way to find out how your company is doing. Don’t let people stop the questions by saying, “Shut up and eat your french fries.”

In order to grow as a business, you have to stop every once in a while and examine why exactly you do something. Kless had a great example in his presentation, perfect for the accountants in his audience. When he asked the crowd how many of them made a photocopy of cash (bills and coins) when they received it, quite a few people in the room raised their hands.

It’s almost by asking that simple question, those who raised their hands immediately realized what they were doing and how silly it was. “Why?” “Because we’ve always done it that way.”

But that’s just a simple process. What if it was something much more complicated and much more impactful to the business? What if it’s a report that takes an employees a full work day to complete each week and nobody ends up reading it? It was done “because we’ve always done it” but the person who originally asked for it is no longer with the company.

How much of an impact is it when an employee spends eight hours on a report that doesn’t matter? How did it affect the bottom line that an employee didn’t do their regular work for a full day? It starts making less and less sense the more you ask about it, just as Kless said.

Customers Say How Questions Helped Them

This same subject came up in our latest Tuesdays with Practical online user group meeting this past week. While she was explaining how her company has started the process of migrating from Sage 500 ERP to Sage X3, Monica Stancik of Nashville Wire Products said how the Practical Software Solutions implementation team encouraged them to review their processes before starting implementation.

Stancik said her team was surprised how many processes they found that did not make sense in their current business model. Through personnel changes and adding new locations, NWP found just how many processes were being done wrong.

On the other hand Jann Guthride of Triangle Suspension Systems, which happens to be a Marmon company, said process review can also find benefits, not just problems. During the meeting, she said they’ve found people who have found a better way of doing a known process and implement it throughout the company.

Matt Holland, our Director of Customized Solutions, said Practical offers the review process to all of our customers before starting a major project but he’s surprised how many organizations do not take us up on the offer. Guthridge has agreed to discuss the USa Process in a future meeting, so hopefully the word will get out about how well it works.

But don’t wait for someone to come along to walk through your processes. If you haven’t reviewed your company’s processes in a while, we highly recommend you do so. Ask the hard questions and find out more about how your company is operating. And don’t let anyone tell you, “Shut up and eat your french fries.”

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