The Power of Why

Simplification is all about asking questions. It’s about rejecting the status quo and accepted wisdom. It’s about digging into the way things work and the reasons behind the processes we follow. It’s about asking why.

  • Why do we do it this way?
  • Why aren’t we looking at alternatives?
  • Why can’t we change this?
  • Why doesn’t this work better?
  • Why don’t we fix this?

Large enterprises can be process oriented, no doubt about it. But as technology shifts and evolves, are our processes keeping pace? Can we really say that processes developed 10 years ago are still optimized for our current environment? Even processes developed 2 years ago may be obsolete by now. Simplification is about pulling those processes apart and looking for ways to adapt them to the “here and now.”  And then to ensure that these processes are easier to manage later when technology shifts again!

Engineers at Toyota (the source of both Six Sigma & LEAN) have a process they call The 5 Whys. The 5 Whys is an iterative approach to problem solving designed to elicit a root cause for a particular problem or failure. But we can use it to help us drive simplification as well. If you apply this same practice to unpack a process, you can achieve a greater understanding of the purpose and intent of that process and what can be done to make it simpler and easier to follow. Perhaps you’ll find you can even eliminate that process.

Traditionally, The 5 Whys were used to drive to root-cause. For instance (from Wikipedia):

The vehicle will not start. (the problem)

  1. Why? – The battery is dead. (first why)
  2. Why? – The alternator is not functioning. (second why)
  3. Why? – The alternator belt has broken. (third why)
  4. Why? – The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (fourth why)
  5. Why? – The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (fifth why, a root cause)
  6. Why? – Replacement parts are not available because of the extreme age of the vehicle. (sixth why, optional footnote)
  • Start maintaining the vehicle according to the recommended service schedule. (possible 5th Why solution)
  • Adapt a similar car part to the car. (possible 6th Why solution)

Let’s apply this same thinking to the an Enterprise Change Control Process.

It takes 6 weeks to load an application into the application portfolio. (the problem)

  1. Why? – Auditors want to know that applications are assessed. (first why)
  2. Why? – We are held accountable for assessments. (second why)
  3. Why? – We must manage risk. (third why)
  4. Why? – We have defined assessment as an entrance criteria. (fourth why)
  5. Why? – I have to do an assessment before loading data. (fifth why)
  • Requiring assessments prior to loading creates a bottleneck (Solving
    4th & 5th Whys)
  • Change the process to facilitate loading data followed by assessment (Solving the 5th why)

While we may argue of the order of the Whys and even their content in this example, the methodology has merit. It forces us to think analytically about why we’ve designed our world to work and what we can do, as a team, to improve it.

This method is certainly not the only approach to evaluating the prospects for simplification but it does present a simple analytic starting point for teams interested in making their worlds easier to operate.