A very effective, but simple problem solving tool is the probing question: ‘why’? Called by various names in the consulting industry (The Five Whys, Cause and Effect, Dispersion Analysis), asking this question gets you to the center of the problem without getting bogged down in history and blame.
Whether used by an individual facing an issue in her own business or a team trying to create a solution to a sticky organizational situation, asking ‘why’ to a series of questions often leads to a great revelation. The simple trick of the ‘why’ is that you get past symptoms to core problems and then dig a bit deeper to find what can sometimes be a universal cause to a number of problematic issues. It is important though, to be honest and accurate with the answers.
Here’s an example:
A business I worked with a number of years ago developed a new technology for skin care that was effective but labour intensive. They began recruiting and training young women in all the intricacies of the regime in order to provide the service to a slowly growing customer base. The company would train up to ten women at a time, over a period of two months. Very few (usually one or two) would complete the training. Those that did finish training usually left the program very soon after beginning delivery of the service.
In a series of exit interviews, we started to delve into the real issues. Of all of the answers given for leaving, two recurred with some frequency: “It’s way too complicated.” and; “I can’t see a future doing this.”
In working down the line with ‘whys’ in the first response, we recognized that there were problems with the recruitment side and the selection criteria for trainees had to reflect the need for some mechanical or technical competencies.
When respondents were asked why they couldn’t see a future in it, the answers were varied: the company couldn’t provide enough hours; not enough customers to go around; technology too new and market not proven or ready. We ended with the realization that as the trainees became familiar with the technology, they recognized that it would be a long time, if ever, before the demand for the service made their training a sure source of income.
The company was able to develop a core of competent and loyal service personnel through better recruitment criteria, base pay guarantees, and an incentive program that rewarded trainees for bringing in clients. In addition, a stepped up marketing program gave trainees faith that the company was putting resources into building up clientele.
While that’s a very simplified explanation of the technique, it provides a starting point for you to try the five ‘whys’ with your business issues to see if you can identify the core problems and apply solutions that make a difference.