Improve by asking: ‘Why, what if, how?’

Question: I hear a lot these days about the necessity for continuous improvement but I don’t know how to do it. We have problems, such as missed delivery schedules, variable quality and employee turnover, but when I try to find out what happened and who is to blame, I can’t seem to get a straight answer. How am I supposed to run an effective organization and improve it when I can’t find out what is going on?

Answer: A “what happened and who is to blame” scenario is often the reason for not making progress at continuously improving organizations. This fact-finding system involves closed-end questions (meaning that they do not engender creative thinking) to which there is only one answer.

Once the answer is found, rather than being right or wrong, some sort of disciplinary action is taken to “solve” the problem. This type of approach will not improve overall company performance and continuous improvement.

But there is a better way of handling issues and questions that can create continuous improvement, according to website It is the Why-What if-How process.

Instead of focusing on what happened (closed-end question), we would ask: Why do we consistently miss promised customer delivery dates? (Open-ended question). Responses to this question could bring about a wide variety of ideas rather than single answers that are typical of closed-end questions.

We can then move to the “what if” questions, which are also open-ended. An example might be: What if we developed an order-to-shipment schedule that would enable us to effectively promise a delivery date at the time the order is originally placed? If we focus on that option, we can then move to the “how” question by developing and implementing the desired system.

We now have a platform that can lead to continuous improvement through a better way of questioning. The process of Why-What if-How can be used over and over again, and thereby become the normal way the organization confronts problems and creates opportunities from them.

The key to establishing a new method of handling problems is to avoid a closed-end approach to finding out what happened and who is to blame. You will receive greater employee participation and better cooperation in solving problems by using an open-ended approach.

The Why-What if-How system can lead directly to continuous improvement. Other aspects of the system are question storming (as opposed to brainstorming), which is nonjudgmental and potentially provide a variety of new ideas.

SCORE mentors can help organizations become more effective through the use of these concepts and other tools designed to provide opportunities for continuous improvement. Contact SCORE at 301-766-2043 for more information and to get mentoring assistance.