Ask the critically important question: Why?

Perhaps you’ve heard a version of this story, or perhaps you’ve had a similar experience:

As a girl watched her mother prepare dinner, the girl asked “Why do you always cut the end off the roast?”

The mother replied “That’s the way my mother always made it.”

When the girl asked why her grandmother cut the end off the roast, the mother didn’t know. But the next time they saw Grandma, the girl asked why she always cut the end off the roast. The grandmother replied “Because the pan was too small.”

Blindly following “the way we’ve always done it” routines can cause your workplace to stagnate. A few years ago, well into this era of online banking, a friend of mine was shocked to find an employee in an accounting office still using an IBM Selectric and green ledger book. It was the way that employee had always done her job.

Most outdated ways of working aren’t as obvious. It is only as you begin to ask “Why” people do their jobs the way they do that you uncover the underlying reasons. And if you follow Toyota’s well-known method for problem-solving, you recognize that you must ask “Why?” several times to discover the root cause.

It’s important that you listen to new employees who question processes and to periodically rethink your methods. For example, are you using the best approach to reach your goals or are you simply following a system that worked in the past?

However, the possibility for change isn’t enough.

Last year as my sister and I prepared Easter dinner, an opportunity for change struck me. Most members of the older generations in our family have passed away, so I pointed out to her: “We are now the keepers of the family traditions. We can make those traditions whatever we want. We could have lasagna for Easter dinner instead of ham!”

We still had ham. Following the tradition is familiar and comforting.

That can be the case with workers’ routines too. Even when you make new tools and methods available to them, they may resist until you show them a compelling reason to change: the time they will save, how customers will be more satisfied or how the change will make their work easier.

At home, we’ll be serving ham again this year. That routine is working for us, at least until our vegan nephew visits. Then we’ll have a whole new set of questions to explore.

What routines have you scuttled to be more successful?

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