Giant problems often appear to need giant solutions. However, honest analysis and investigation usually points to something small that nobody thought of. This small oversight upstream often results in the fire downstream. For example, thousands of products can have an incorrect barcode because the packaging designer didn’t have a good proofreading process. While the giant solution of relabeling all the products may be needed to fix the immediate problem, a two-minute process upstream could avoid future problems. To find the root cause of an emergency, I often use the 5 Whys technique, which helps get down to the bottom of what caused the current problem by asking “why?” repeatedly. However, I think most companies need another technique to catch problems before they turn into emergencies. I call this method the Three-year-old Why Technique.
Profound Questions by Three-Year-Olds
Whenever I talk with a child age three to five, I usually hear several “Why?” questions. From reading a couple online articles about the subject, I’ve learned that this behavior is most likely children’s method of both learning and capturing attention. However, the part of this behavior that always surprises me is the profound questions that children stumble upon simply by questioning everything. “Why do I have to sleep?” “Why can’t we eat grass?” “Why do we eat with forks?” These questions likely helped neuroscientists, biologists, and anthropologists earn tenure by publishing deep scientific responses. These questions also leave me with a much different question of myself: Why don’t I still ask ‘why?’ question? Most likely, my sense of wonder and curiosity has taken a back seat to the demands of meetings, action items, and everyday operations. Yet, when I am able to take a few minutes to ask, I usually stumble upon an opportunity to improve.
Relearning to Ask Why
One time that many of us ask a great deal of questions is when we start a new job. Trying to learn the duties of a new position is stressful, but the questions I ask often highlight opportunities for the department to improve. Each ‘why?’ question gives my manager an opportunity to reflect on the answer and validate the reasoning. Without fail, I eventually receive an answer that I love to hear: “I’m not sure why. That’s just the way we’ve always done it.” To a process engineer, this is the low hanging fruit to improve the company. But how do we find those golden answers? In order to find improvement opportunities before problems erupt, you must ask questions without a reason to ask. This is hard, especially with a long To-Do list of urgent initiatives. Perhaps stepping back every hour or two and asking, “why am I doing this?” is the easiest way to get started. Eventually, it will become a habit of questioning processes and decisions. As many parents of three-year-olds will warn, the key is to always be optimistic and never become annoying.
The Goal Answer
The goal of your questions should be a response such as “I don’t know. That’s just the way we’ve always done it” or something similar. Alternatively, there may be a logical answer, but the circumstances have changed. For example, “Why do we use this supplier?” “Because when our company started four years ago, they were our neighbors and were willing to give us great credit terms.” Loyalty is important, but if your company has moved across the country and you need better prices, it’s probably worth some analysis.
The following is a table of questions I’ve asked before that may help you start thinking.
Possible Improvements if Answer Unknown
|Why do we use this specific supplier?||Opportunity to save money, improve service, or improve quality|
|Why is our warehouse organized this way?||Opportunity to improve efficiency or capacity|
|Why do we track this data on a spreadsheet and not in our database?||Opportunity to improve information sharing|
|Why do we have our garbage picked up (or another service) so often?||Opportunity to save money|
|Why don’t we look at this data when we make decisions?||Opportunity to increase customer service, efficiency, or quality|
|Why is everyone in this meeting?||Opportunity to maximize people’s time|
Now, I do not recommend just questioning everything all day. Too many questions can sometimes hinder us from moving forward. I certainly don’t advocate questions to stir up commotion. Rather, I believe questions are an underutilized tool in a quest for solutions. Start asking a few unprovoked questions and see where they lead. Reach for quick wins with the limited time you have. The most rewarding questions fireproof processes so they’ll never erupt into emergencies, which will give you more time to improve your processes. If you find you just don’t have time to ask “why”, perhaps you can consider adding a three-year-old to your staff.
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