Management By Asking Why

The 5 Whys is a management concept that has been popularized by Toyota [1]. The concept is simple - when you encounter a problem, ask why at least 5 times until you understand the root cause. Only by addressing the root cause can you truly resolve the issue and ensure that it will never occur again. In today’s fast paced and dynamic business environment, constantly asking why is a good business practice that can lead to a more innovative and better problem-solving culture.

In this post, I want to extend the concept of the 5 Whys and introduce something that has helped me tremendously. I will use the term “Management By Asking Why” in order to describe this practice. Management By Asking Why (MBAW) is very simple. Instead of telling employees what to do, ask them a few questions about their job on a daily basis. By asking questions you can test their knowledge and encourage them to think critically about their work. When an employee does not know an answer, they have to find the answer for themselves.

Here are a few questions that you can ask your employees every day:

1. What are you doing in your job today?
2. Why are you doing what you are doing?
3. How does it add value to our customers or advance our business model?
4. What have you learned this week and what do you plan on learning next week?
5. Where do you want to advance in your career? What are the steps that you are taking today in order to make that happen?

These questions seem very simple at first; however, to effectively answer these questions each and every day is not very easy. I have found that asking questions consistently, employees think more critically about their work, strive to improve their own skills, and better align their work with the objectives of the business.

The Difference Between Asking and Telling

If you had to teach someone something, the method and level of detail in your teaching will depend upon a variety of factors: 1) will the person use this every day, 2) how detailed of an explanation is required, and 3) what is the time horizon for learning this skill.

It is not always necessary to ask 5 Why’s. If someone does not need to know much detail or they will not use the skill often or there is high risk involved, it is much more effective to tell them what to do. Often times this can been seen as a standard checklist of procedures for the person to follow. In this case, the person can be productive right away.

On the other hand; however, if you want to invest in someone’s skills for the long-term, asking rather than telling is more effectively. Telling them what to do allows them to apply the best practices that are available today. It does not allow them to think critically about how the best practices were developed and how it can be improved even further. Although this process takes longer it can result in greater understanding, appreciation, and long term sustainability. It helps develop independent thinkers that can proactively solve problems and deeply understand the business.

For MBAW to work, three things need to happen: 1) management needs to resist the urge of telling people what to do (this can be quite difficult for some people), 2) employees need to feel safe and be able to say “I don’t know”, and 3) employees need to take responsibility and find answers to questions that they cannot answer.

Why Do You Need to Ask Why?

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman divides human decision-making into two systems [2]. System 1 is an automatic, fast and often unconscious way of thinking. It is autonomous and efficient, requiring little energy or attention, but is prone to biases and systematic errors. System 2 is an effortful, slow and controlled way of thinking. It requires energy and can’t work without attention but, once engaged, it has the ability to filter the instincts of System 1.

Kahneman’s findings can be extended to all business decisions as well. Most decisions are on autopilot and rely mostly on system 1. This is evident when you hear management say things such as “we are doing what we have always been doing”, “this year’s budget is based on last year’s budget with only some minor adjustments”, “this process has always worked, why should we change?”.

Relying on system 1 thinking can be efficient and effective if your business lives in a hermetically sealed chamber. Unfortunately, most businesses are more dynamic and have to interface with a world that is rapidly changing. Your clients will change, your value proposition will change, your competition will change, and the technology that underpins value generation will also change. If everything around you changes, then shouldn’t you also change as well?

One of the reasons why I encourage employees to ask why is because I want them to question the status quo. Employees work with our customers every day and therefore need to be attuned to slight changes in the customer’s requirements. These small changes in customer requirements will affect our product and services offerings.

Another reason why I use MBAW is to solve the engagement problem. Did you know that according to Gallup [3], 32 % of employees are engaged in their job. This means that a majority of the labor force, is disengaged. Employees are not actively engaged in their work due to two primary reasons: 1) they do not know the impact that their work has on the company and 2) few employees are not challenged in their jobs.

Adopting Lean helps an organization develop a continuous improvement culture. In our modern work environment, employees are the most underutilized resource. Just by asking why more often you will be shock at the types of innovations that people can come up.

[1] Taiichi Ohno "Ask 'why' five times about every matter."

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