Operations Q&A: Why?

A simple question can help uncover the real problem.

Question: Why? Why… Why… Why… Why?

Answer: There is an old axiom in law that is followed by all successful attorneys: Never ask a question for which you do not know the answer. While that approach works in the courtroom, it is not the most productive technique for those of us working in the world of distribution.

The ultimate goal of problem solving is to identify and correct the root cause. Dealing with symptoms merely masks the underlying issue(s). It is only when the root problem is discovered that meaningful, lasting corrections be made.

So how does one get past the upper crust? By asking questions without necessarily knowing the answers.

Don't just ask any old questions; it is much simpler than that. Ask: “Why?” And then again: “Why?” While not a cast-in-stone number, it has been empirically determined that asking “Why?” five times is the magical number. This is known in the world of Six Sigma as the "5 Whys."

This is an iterative process that begins with a problem statement, such as “Customers are unhappy because they are receiving wrong items.” Then come the five “Why?” questions, each intended to peel away another layer of symptoms. “Why are wrong items being shipped?” “Because they’re in the wrong place.” “Why are they in the wrong place?” “Because someone put them there.” “Why were the items put there?” And so on. I believe you get the idea.

Bottom Line: Don't get caught up in the math. As always, it is quality over quantity. If four questions gets you to the bottom line, great. If it takes eight or nine questions, so be it. The objective is to identify the root cause of a problem so that it can be properly fixed.

Be inquisitive. Do not assume. Be thorough. Do not take the easy route but the road less taken. For those of us with children, think about your three year old toddler: “Why mommy?” “Why daddy?” Be that inquiring mind.

I welcome your comments and questions at lee@schwartzpro.com.

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