Are We Asking the Right “Why” Question?
Which is better?... The elevator or the escalator?
An exercise I love to do with students early into their Lean training is separating them into two debate teams. Team 1 is tasked with arguing in favour of elevators and why they are a far better option than escalators. Team 2 is tasked to argue in favour of the escalator. Each team has 5 minutes to prepare their argument after which a brief debate takes place with each team vying for the “win”.
When the dust settles, and rather than announcing a winner, I ask the students… “But, as ‘Lean thinkers’, are we even asking the right question?” Is there a more important question that we should be asking?”
At this point, the students typically struggle to identify what the “right” question might be. I may give them a hint: “What are the eight wastes?”. Soon than later, an “aha moment” occurs as one or more students will identify that both the escalator and the elevator are means of conveyance and since transportation is one of the eight wastes, ask…
“WHY DO THE PEOPLE NEED TO BE TRANSPORTED?”
We have witnessed and/or experienced dramatic changes to the workplace over the past two ore more years including remote, hybrid, and traditional onsite/in office work arrangements and the ongoing debate on what should be the “new norm”.
One morning this week, my partner and I were discussing an article that appeared In CBC News with a headline that read, “Rush to electric vehicles may be an expensive mistake, say climate strategists”. Source: https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/ev-transition-column-don-pittis-1.6667698
ARE WE FOCUSING TOO MUCH ON THE “WHAT”, “HOW”, “WHEN”, AND “WHERE”?
I shared with my partner that my role as a continuous improvement consultant and trainer typically involves “fixing something”, “solving a problem”, or teaching others to do likewise and that one of the first tools we employ is the “5W2H” problem statement to help us focus on what it is we are trying to fix or improve;
What is the problem? Why is it a problem? Where do we observe the problem? Who is impacted by the problem? When did we first observe the problem? How do we observe the problem? How often do we observe the problem?’
That discussion caused me to think more about the “Why” captured in the 5W2H… that one might wonder if we are asking the “right” why question? Is it possible that by limiting the "why" to the problem we may inadvertently be reinforcing biases and established paradigms? Thinking back to the electric versus internal combustion engine vehicle debate, is there a risk that we are “losing sight of the forest for the trees”?
Would a deeper understanding of the need, the “why do we…?”, offer us a different perspective or lens and in so doing, open the door to possibly “respectfully challenging established paradigms” before diving into problem-solving and solutions?
1. Back to our electric vehicle debate…
As an alternative to focusing on which mode of transportation (aka “waste”) is a better option, perhaps exploring first the “why people have the need/desire to travel” will inspire a more complete understanding of the system of which travel is a resulting output?
A better understanding of what is driving the need leads to other questions. For example, “Can we reduce the travel or eliminate it altogether?” “What are the factors and constraints contributing to the need?” Can this insight lead to new thinking and, perhaps, a very different imagining of a future state that is no longer constrained by how the original problem was framed?
2. Improving air travel: More efficient, effective, and environmentally less damaging? Think again!
“EPA reports that commercial airplanes and large business jets contribute 10 percent of U.S. transportation emissions, and account for three percent of the nation’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) production.” Source: https://www.eesi.org/papers/view/fact-sheet-the-growth-in-greenhouse-gas-emissions-from-commercial-aviation
“Business trips currently account for roughly 13.6% of total U.S. air travel.” Source: https://www.zippia.com/advice/business-travel-statistics/.
COVID decimated the airline and hospitality industry with travel severely curtailed or, in some cases, prohibited. But how did this impact businesses and business travelers? Did operations cease? Were sales or customer experience adversely impacted? Did profits (outside of the hospitality and travel industry) take a hit? Or… did new or improved technologies adequately address the need for virtual collaborative tools that replaced physical face to face interaction?
Has this forced focus on the “why travel?” led to a reimagining of the workplace where business travel, in hindsight, can now be viewed as an option and not a necessity?
“Updated Study Estimates Up To 40% Of Airline Business Travel May Not Return.” Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/benbaldanza/2022/04/01/updated-study-estimates-up-to-40-of-airline-business-travel-may-not-return/
Transportation is the theme for the two preceding examples but… Isn’t transportation one of the eight wastes with resulting by-products that cause serious harm to the environment? It is no longer good enough to “reduce, reuse, recycle”, a phrase that can be traced back to the 1970’s. We have since been asked to “rethink” which begs the question, “Do you really need to…”.
3. “Going on Mission”: A Multilateral Development Banking Asks the “Right” Why
While working with a client several years ago in support of their goal of creating a more efficient and effective organization, it became apparent the “mission” phase of project assessment, (an essential element of their important project work), consumed vast resources of people, time, and capital and was rife with errors, inspection, delays, and other forms of waste. Rather than immediately focusing on improving the “appraisal mission” processes which would have started with the question, “Why is the process inefficient and ineffective?”, the following was posed to the bank’s stakeholders;
"Why does a multi-disciplined team from the bank have to travel in country at considerable cost and risk in the early stages of every project appraisal?”
“Why does anyone, for that matter, have to travel in country at all?”
This initial line of questioning yielded a respectful challenging of paradigms and new insight into organization and system psychology and behaviour. Armed with this knowledge, a better future state design emerged… a reimagining of the project appraisal process and enabling technologies.
In our role as continuous improvement consultants and specialists, we are not always afforded the opportunity to take a step back and think of a bigger and better “why” question. And... not everything we do requires a paradigm shift. Sometimes we simply need to make the car go further and faster… efficiency and effectiveness.
But we can all play an important role in the future by inspiring individuals and organizations alike to start thinking differently… to continuously and respectfully challenge established paradigms. One way to do that is to change the focus from the “how” and spend more time on the “why”. If we apply that to everything we do, including continuous improvement, I think the outcomes will be far better than could have been imagined.