Sunday 6 June 2010

Are you asking the right question

Ask the right question to get the right answer. One of my professors really brought home the overriding importance of asking the right question. It was a course on simulating complex systems. We were discussing a simulation of lifts in a multistorey building ... people arrive at different times on different floors, needing to go to different floors. There was a lot of people waiting for a lift on the ground floor. How do you optimize this system (minimize wait times or total transit times) would be the obvious question, and detailed simulations of different configurations would help reduce the wait or transit times. However, someone else looking at the problem actually decided that the issue was boredom while waiting. Their solution was to put a TV in the lobby. 
When I was doing this course, Lintas had its offices in Express Towers in Nariman Point, 13th & 15th Floors. Lintas had put TVs in their lift lobbies with some of their best advertisements playing. I had friends there and visited often. I had the experience of missing my lift on more than one occasion as I was engrossed in watching the TV. And today we can see the same in airports ... as there are more things to do in the airport, going a little early for the flight is not painful.

Finding the right question comes up in many other contexts also. For instance, one school of management thought has tried to reframe the industry that companies play in .. are you in the rail industry or the transportation industry ? 

One of the best tools for finding the right question is the Five Whys tool from Toyota and used in Kaizen/TQM (Total Quality Management). It is probably the single best quality tool ... nothing else is as simple but really gets to the heart of issues like asking 5 Whys.

An old joke on asking the right question, and on happiness ... which is a later post.

One day a fisherman was lying on a beautiful beach, with his fishing pole propped up in the sand and his solitary line cast out into the sparkling blue surf. He was enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun and the prospect of catching a fish. About that time, a businessman came walking down the beach, trying to relieve some of the stress of his workday. He noticed the fisherman sitting on the beach and decided to find out why this fisherman was fishing instead of working harder to make a living for himself and his family. 

“You aren’t going to catch many fish that way,” said the businessman to the fisherman, “you should be working rather than lying on the beach!” 

The fisherman looked up at the businessman, smiled and replied, “And what will my reward be?” 

“Well, you can get bigger nets and catch more fish!” was the businessman’s answer. 

“And then what will my reward be?” asked the fisherman, still smiling. 

The businessman replied, “You will make money and you ll be able to buy a boat, which will then result in larger catches of fish!” 

“And then what will my reward be?” asked the fisherman again. 

The businessman was beginning to get a little irritated with the fisherman’s questions. “You can buy a bigger boat, and hire some people to work for you!” he said. 

“And then what will my reward be?” repeated the fisherman. 

The businessman was getting angry. “Don’t you understand? You can build up a fleet of fishing boats, sail all over the world, and let all your employees catch fish for you!” 

Once again the fisherman asked, “And then what will my reward be?” 

The businessman was red with rage and shouted at the fisherman, “Don’t you understand that you can become so rich that you will never have to work for your living again! You can spend all the rest of your day’s sitting on this beach, looking at the sunset. You won’t have a care in the world!” 

The fisherman, still smiling, looked up and said, “And what do you think I m doing right now?”

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