A simple technique for getting to the bottom of problems is to ask the question "why?" – five times, to drill down to the heart of the matter. I learned this from Toyota motors and their problem solving strategy.

Here is an example. I am meeting with a church board of about fifteen hundred whose board meets twice a month from about seven to midnight – terribly long and inefficient meetings. I ask “why do you do this? I can’t imagine those meetings being very productive.” “Well we have a lot of stuff that we need to do” is the answer.

Why do you as a board need to do all that stuff?” I ask.  “Are there not staff or volunteers who can do much of it?” “Well, I guess we’re not that good at delegating and think we need to be on top of everything in the church” they answer.

Why do you need to be on top of everything? Don’t you just need to be on top of the most important things” I ask? “Good question, they answer. We just assumed that we needed to know everything. As I think about it that is kind of impossible in a church our size is it not? I don’t think we do a very good job of differentiating between the small stuff and the big stuff.”

Why is that?” I ask. “Hmmm,” one of them says. “We don’t really plan our meetings very well. We just have this list of stuff that we need to decide and then the meetings go on and on and on. Our agenda is sort of like a shopping list of stuff we talk about.”

Why don’t you plan your meetings so that you cover the big rocks first and let the smaller rocks fall to someone else?” I ask. “We never really thought of that,” they answer.  “But we like it.”

By drilling down with five “why?” questions we got to the heart of the issue. This board did not differentiate between key issues they needed to deal with and mundane issues that did not need their attention. And they made faulty assumptions about needing to know everything that went on in the church. Modifying this assumption and paying attention only to the big rocks along with a disciplined meeting structure could reduce their twice monthly meetings from five hours to two. So simple, but they had never taken the time to ask why they did what they did how they did it – in spite of the pain.

The next time you have a problem you would like to solve, try asking the question “Why?” five times, drilling down to the heart of the matter. You may be surprised at what you find.

Want to drill down further? Check out this link.
  • Mar 16, 2011
  • Category: News
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