Monday, March 25, 2013

Ask why?

I once remember reading that Toyota had this process called 5 Whys.  Whenever a process fails or they encountered a problem, they would ask why the failure occurred.  When they find the answer, then they would ask why again to figure out the reason for the answer being the way it was.  The would repeat this asking whys 5 times for each failure.  Only after understanding the five-levels of why, they would make changes to prevent the root cause from happening again.

I believe that asking why is an important step in understanding the entire problem domain.  Without understanding the real problem, we end up treating the symptoms.  When the band aid wears off, it soon happens again, and we would have to fix it all over again.

In order to be able to ask why, everyone needs to clearly understand the objective for each step and the reasons why the decisions were made the way they were.  But that's not always easy.  Team members may be geographically distributed, each member can have different perspective from each other, hence may see things from a different angle.  Combine them with aggressive schedule, team members may feel that their primary job of writing functional code is all that matters, and do not take time to ask whys.

Let's apply the five-levels of why to the problem of people not asking why for a fictitious organization, ACME corp:

  1. People don't ask why because they are rewarded for short-term results rather than long-term results.
  2. People are rewarded for short-term results because ultimate metric is each quarter's revenue number.
  3. Main metric is quarterly revenue number because there is no long-term commitment.
  4. Lack of long-term commitment is because people are not sure whether they will be around to see the benefit.
  5. People are not sure because they are not fully committed to the organization.

So to fix this problem for ACME corp, we need to do the following:

  • Create meaningful metrics that measures the longer-term results.
  • Reward them based on longer-term metrics.
  • Engender employee loyalty by aligning company values with employee's common values.
  • Hire employees with longer-term commitment to the company, and incentivize them to stay longer.

These solutions are not obvious when we focus on the first-order problem.  We have to drill down to figure out what is causing the problem.

See if you can apply to your problem and come up with suggested action items to improve the situation.

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