Before Starting a Project, Ask this Question... 5 Times
It's time to start a new project. Stakeholders are assembled. Leadership is present and sharing the objective and ask. Everyone seems to be nodding their heads in assent. The meeting ends with some action items and agreement to meet again. You feel like the project is a good idea but you're haunted by some questions. "Why this project, right now?" "What is driving the six month timeline?" Or "When I gave my thoughts, the body language from leadership suggests to me that they feel like I might not really understand something. What am I missing?"
Lean Six Sigma teaches a simple tool to help facilitate deep understanding of a project goal: ask "Why?" five times. I often see the "5-Whys" discussed in the context of root cause analysis. However, my favorite use of the 5-Whys is actually right at the beginning of the project when we are getting ready to write the project charter. Disclaimer: getting the right answer also depends on the setting where this question is asked. I usually like to ask this before the formal kickoff meeting "by the water cooler" and then I might reiterate a summary of my understanding in the next meeting.
Here's an example:
Meeting Leader: "We need to implement this software."
ML: "Because this process takes too long and it needs to be more efficient and we need to be able to process 100 more orders this year."
ML: "Because the plant manager is saying that our area is the bottleneck."
Why? (Or in this case - why this process?")
ML: "Our labor standard is higher and yet our operations and tasks are similar to other areas."
Why? (Or in this case - what does success look like?"
ML: "If we implement this process, we should see reductions in our labor standard time associated with these tasks.
Why? (Or – what is the impact from this reduction that the business is looking to see?”
ML: We should not only improve our cost of sales but we should be able to take on more capacity. Sales is forecasting only more growth but we don't want to keep adding resources exponentially."
I particularly like this example because "making a process more efficient" and producing more output seems like that's enough of a reason to complete a project. However, continuing to ask why a few more times could help reveal a couple more insights such as, who is asking for the improvement, what is the real measure of success, and why now. The project final "why" isn't always financial either - it could be to respond to a compliance need, it could be to address complaints that may not be directly hurting sales but is hurting the brand, to improve workforce engagement or many other reasons. Usually, though, there are specific metrics or objectives that leadership is looking at that will define the project success, and ensuring the team is fully understanding those metrics will help the team stay focused. In addition, since implementations often require trade offs later in terms of scope, cost, or time, establishing the "real why" will help the team make the right choices throughout the project.