When I was a little boy, I routinely drove my parents crazy by asking the same question over and over again. The question was “Why?”
When I wanted to play outside after dark—and I was told “No”—I asked “Why?” When my mother told me that it was too late to do so, I again asked “Why?” “Why is it dark so early?” “Why does being dark outside make any difference?” “Why can’t we just turn on the porch light?” “Why are you always so worried about me?” “Why don’t you trust me?” Perhaps you have a kid like me, and if so, you probably got so exasperated that you finally resorted to the parent’s ultimate answer: “BECAUSE I SAID SO!”
Now, over 50 years later, you probably would surmise that I have matured to the point that I no longer ask “Why?” You would be wrong.
As an advisor and coach to executives, I often challenge their thinking by asking “Why?” Why is the question that launches the first phase of problem-solving: Analysis. Asked early and often, “Why?” gets at the root cause of problems and concerns.
Consider the issue faced by the engineering team at one the world’s largest tire manufacturers a few years ago. One of their production processes—that of hand wrapping their tires in protective brown paper—was too labor intensive given their huge sales volume. The cost of this process had grown to $25 million per year. The engineering team was charged with reducing this exorbitant cost through an automated solution.
They met regularly over a period of weeks, considering a number of tire-wrapping automation solutions and were close to consensus regarding which of these to implement. One of the members of the engineering team was a new hire, a young man who had been invited to sit in on the meetings “to learn how things are done” at his new company. Being a newcomer, he said nothing for the first several meetings. However, as the solution chosen was being refined into a project plan, he raised his hand and timidly asked the question: “Why do we wrap our tires?”
The answer was quickly given, “To protect the sidewalls.” The neophyte engineer then asked, “Why do we need to protect the sidewalls?” This question created a stir in the room. After a few minutes, the answer came back, “Well, we have always wrapped them to keep the white sidewalls clean… “ Others in the room then stated what everyone had overlooked: The company had stopped making tires with white sidewalls many years ago! With that recognition, the question became, “Why do we need to wrap our tires at all?”
The answer to this was simply: “We don’t!” The cost-saving solution to the tire-wrapping problem was not automation; it was to stop wrapping tires at all. The savings? $25 million per year!
Two points are key here. First, asking “Why?” puts our problem-solving analysis on the right track. Too often, diving right into solutions leads to sub-optimal outcomes. Strong problem-solving inevitably should, of course, move to the collaborative creation of solution options. And collaboration should lead to the development of a project plan which implements those solutions. That said, spending time upfront analyzing “why” a problem exists helps us zero in on root causes—and direct our solutions to the elimination of those causes.
The second key point is that sometimes our expertise and familiarity with a problem creates a myopia that impairs our ability to ask the “why question.” Just as the tire company found their solution through a green engineer, often those who seem the least experienced bring the fresh eyes we need to identify our real problems and their solutions. Don’t fail to entertain the input of those with less experience or education; inviting their ideas just might be worth $25 million to you!