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Don’t Ask Why Without Asking When First

by The Business Alchemist

in Business Tips

Here are some more thoughts on the importance of asking good questions.

There are two important secrets to solving any problem :

You won’t have a permanent solution unless you deal with the real cause rather than apply sticking plaster solutions to its effects. You must also ask the right questions. You may have heard of the 5 Whys approach to solving a problem. This is a simple but powerful technique because it forces you to think more deeply and not stop at the obvious reason.

In case you’re not familiar with the method, you ask Why the problem exists and repeat the question until you reach the real cause. The number isn’t fixed but asking the question five times will usually provide the insight that you need unless the problem is very complex.

Why have we lost this customer ?
The delivery was late. Why ?
The product could not be tested before despatch. Why ?
The test equipment required could not be used because its heating oil did not arrive. Why ?
The supplier had not been paid for the previous delivery. Why ?
We only pay suppliers on the first Thursday of the month

The unexpected real reason for the lost customer was the company’s policy to ignore suppliers’ payment terms in favour of its own.

Before starting your Why? questions, however, I suggest that you first ask When ?

When did the problem first occur ? Check what took place before the problem began

New methods ? New materials ? A breakdown ? Equipment serviced ? New supplier ?

When does the problem occur ? Look for activities that take place at the same time as the problem.

Monday mornings ? Certain individuals present ? Certain raw materials used ? Certain operations performed ?

These first two questions are obvious but there’s a third that’s particularly satisfying when you follow the answer to a conclusion.

How often does the problem occur ? You’re looking for “something” that happens at the same frequency as the problem. My example involves a manufacturing problem but I’ll try and keep the facts as general as possible.

A good clue that such a cause exists is a process that needs continuous adjustments for no reason.

An excellent example is a company that I helped to investigate a quality problem with a strange twenty minute cycle. The process would be stable for five minutes, then drift for fifteen minutes before returning to normal.

It was the result of an economy measure earlier in the process. The cause was a stirrer in a holding tank containing a mixture like wall-paper paste. It only operated for five minutes at a time. When it stopped, the air bubbles rose to the top. Anyone who has ever drunk a milkshake knows how it changes when sucked through a straw.

The problem was magnified when operators adjusted the equipment as a result of quality control tests. By the time they could check the product again, paste from a different stage of the start-stop cycle had arrived and needed an opposite adjustment.

The answer was simply to run the stirrer slowly but continuously

In summary,

Ask the When? questions :

  • When did the problem first occur ?
  • When does the problem occur ?
  • How often does the problem occur ?

They provide information to focus your search for the cause of the problem. Then use the powerful Why? questions

If you’re concerned with quality management, this story illustrates several additional points

  • Treat specifications as targets, not goal-posts.
  • If you can eliminate a source of variation at no cost, do it.
  • Patterns can be more useful to your investigations than the numbers they represent.
  • Changes may have effects that are out of proportion to their size.

If you would like to discuss this subject further, please Contact Me and also receive my report Ten Practical Tips to Find Original Answers to Any Business Problem

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