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The Power Of A Question

Problem solving is probably at the core of any business, in any industry. When working in your start up if you don’t become a good problem solver in what you do, you could loose a lot of money and maybe even lose your business.

When things go wrong, and they will – let’s be honest here, you need to gather information. Gathering of data to find out why what happened, happened, can be beneficial to your business. If you don’t stop to figure out why what happened, you may overlook valuable information that could lead to a resolution. Or, worse, you’ll panic and make even more mismakes which could be even more costly.

The power of a question, is that it provokes an answer. When someone asks you a question, whether it be a closed or an open question, you have the tenancy to answer it – it’s instinct, it’s in our nature.

If you think back to, when you were a small child and your mother asked you a question about something you probably shouldn’t have done – you were more than likely to tell her what happened. Or if she asked you what you did at school that day, you probably ran off a list of things you did and who was your best friend for the day.

When a police officer arrives on the scene of a crime, he will immediately begin to ask questions to gather information. Police stations have interview rooms, where they question suspects to get them to confess, and lawyers ask clever questions to try to get the accused to stumble and open up about their whereabouts on the night of the incident. And, asking questions is at the heart of any medical or scientific practice.

To receive answers from questions, is to receive collected data to work out what had happened, and to learn from those involved. When things go wrong, or break, we need to fix the thing, or remedy the situation – so we don’t get into that position again. To ask questions is, a great way to get the crux of a problem – the better the question, the better answer you will receive. For example, asking open questions will allow the person answering – to be more explicit with their answers ie they will give you more information to work with.

I know, what you are thinking, ‘But Adam, all this depends on the person being asked, what if they are untruthful.’ Yes, granted if lies are told then this will lead you down the wrong path to the wrong conclusion. However, the majority of people answering questions will answer truthfully – as we get older we are more prone to telling the truth – more than children. Plus, in the workplace, generally people are their for the greater good, so telling fibs will not align with that value.

In any relationship, communication is very important, and it is absolutely vital in business. To gather truthful information is necessary to provide a natural, and positive, feedback loop to find answers quicker to fix issues.

Spending a moment after something went wrong to find out why it went wrong, can be a valuable asset. If you go too fast and overlook things, you can cause more problems. Allowing for adaptive processes will make you slow down and prevent the kinds of problems happening again. Furthermore, investing time along the way to investigate – will discover small problems sooner, preventing bigger problems further down the road. Eventually, the process speed will pick up again as the pauses will become part of the process.

A great way to get at the root of a problem, is to use the method known as, The Five Whys. When confronted with a problem, have you ever stopped and asked, ‘why’ five times? It is difficult to do, even though it sounds easy. The system takes its name from the investigative method of asking the question, ‘Why?’ five times. The technique was developed as a systematic problem-solving tool by, Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System. The Toyota production system has been built on the practice, and evolution of this scientific approach and the method is used to prevent the most problematic symptoms – allowing you to pause and solve smaller issues.

Taiichi Ohno believes, at the root of every seemingly technical problem is a human problem. Five Whys provides an opportunity to discover what that human problem might be.

Below, Taiichi Ohno gives the following example from the Toyota production line.

Suppose a machine stopped functioning:

  1. Why did the machine stop? (There was an overload and the fuse blew)

  2. Why was there an overload? (The bearing was not sufficiently lubricated)

  3. Why was it not lubricated sufficiently? (The lubrication pump was not pumping sufficiently)

  4. Why was it not pumping sufficiently? (The shaft of the pump was worn and rattling)

  5. Why was the shaft worn out? (There was no strainer attached and metal scrap got it)

As you can see, repeating, ‘why’ five times, can help uncover the root problem and correct it.

Note, that even in Ohno’s relatively simple example, the root cause moves away from a technical fault (a blown fuse) and toward a human error (someone forgot to attach a strainer). This is completely typical of most problems that startups face no matter what industry they are in.

If this procedure were not carried through, one might simply replace the fuse or pump shaft. In that case, the problem would recur soon afterwards.

By asking and answering, ‘why’ five times, we can get to the real cause of the problem, which is often hidden behind more obvious symptoms.

So, next time your start up or business encounters a problem, pause for a while and ask yourself and your team, ‘Why’.

Learn more from the book, ‘Toyota Production System: Beyond Large Scale Production.’ by Taiichi Ohno – via the non affiliated link here

Read my post on Taiichi Ohno’s ‘Kanban System’ here

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