By Kevin Meyer
It's that time of the year again when many mortals look back on the year and basically say "crap I should have been able to do more." The end of the year holiday, Christmas or otherwise depending on your particular faith, but eventually New Year's to most. I've become sensitive to such retrospection and resulting future planning occuring at the end of the year ever since I heard Steve Player at a Lean Accounting Summit long ago ask what is so special about December 31st magically becoming January 1st. Good question. Based on that aha moment my company eliminated traditional budgeting. Eventually I noticed that the arbitrary nature of the end of the year applied to many aspects of business – and life – including the desire to create a step change via usually unattainable New Year's resolutions.
So here we are yet again at the end of year holiday period. My wife and I always travel at this time to escape and rejuvenate. Last year we were in Phuket, Thailand. This year we're in Kauai. We didn't wake up Christmas morning to snow shoveling and presents under trees. We woke up to…
Yep, that's right. Coffee made by someone else. And a halfway decent view. And warmth.
But as much as I have become sensitive to the silliness of the changing of the year, to the extent that I try to use academic year calendars to mask it, I do take advantage of this time to ponder the past and consider the future. Hansei, by any other name. This year was no different.
Each year for the past twenty or so I've had a simple annual goal: visit two new countries and do something "different." In the past that "different" goal has led me to learn how to scuba dive, ski in Europe, learn html programming, publish a book – you name it. This year it was to run a marathon, which I did in June. I learned a couple things from that experience: I sometimes need group support and a meaningful reason to keep me on track. I also learned that training for a marathon doesn't necessarily mean you'll lose weight. Realizing I could finally eat a whole pizza and not gain weight pretty much counterbalanced that notion. And yes, once again I did visit two new countries. In 2012, an arbitrary time period by the way, I'm thinking I'll try to learn Mandarin as something different.
However in my ruminations over the course of the year, and especially over the past month and most especially on this trip, I've come to realize the power of two words, both questions: "why?" and "how?" Those two questions are beginning to radically change my life, professionally and personally.
Many of us are already aware of how "why?" can play an important role in root cause analysis. But I've also found that it is a key question when looking at projects, tools, and lean initiatives. Fellow leanie Mark Graban and I had a discussion recently on the subject, specifically in response to one of Mark's readers asking why his lean programs weren't being supported. My first response was to guess that the company had simply thrown together a bunch of tools… some 5S, some value stream mapping, a dash of kaizen or TPM, and ended up with nothing more than tools and a Japanese language lesson. No solid meaning and culture. I've seen it many times. The first thing you need to do is ask "why?" Why is that tool important? What is the problem, what is the desired future state? Then and only then figure out what is the most important tool.
But that same question applies everywhere. Folks like me who are never lacking for ideas and could basically be thrown in a plain white room and not get bored, often have a problem with too many projects. So why do we want to take on that new project? Why is it more important than the other projects that are also competing for our time? Or work processes, even individual. Why can't I answer that email right now? Why is this meeting important? Why do I need a personal assistant? Why is cooking a chore?
That single question of "why" becomes a great simplifier and discriminator of projects, tasks, and even ideas themselves. It helps define relative importance, works to dig deeper into rationale, and uncover hidden issues. By asking why, and giving yourself an honest response, I've found you can free up all kinds of valuable time.
Now on to "how?" I hadn't thought too much about this until reading one of Jamie Flinchbaugh's posts a year or more ago where he discussed why "how?" was very important as part of the hoshin planning process. Bingo! I immediately understood why (!) certain projects weren't being completed – we didn't spend enough time on "how." How will it compete for resources, how will it be staffed, etc. Once again that same question can apply to personal projects and life. How will I achieve this year's "different" goal?
So now, as I'm using the results of this hansei to recalibrate and plan for the future, those two questions are front and center. Why is a project important? Why must I still keep doing this activity? How will I stop? How will I achieve this goal? Why is it necessary? Why can't I make progress on writing this book? I've found conventional wisdom gets challenged at every turn.
It could be an interesting few months, with some potentially radical changes. Stay tuned.
So think about that as you look forward, even if you are making those resolutions. Why? How?