Can a business problem-solving hack help you focus?
The Five Whys is a system for getting to the true underlying source of a problem by asking a series of ‘why’ questions. It was developed as a means of increasing efficiency at Toyota manufacturing plants in Japan in the sixties and seventies. It was later incorporated into newer efficiency schema including Kaizen and Six Sigma. Can a process used to solve manufacturing problems be applied to mindfulness?
First, let’s look at how this works on a basic level
Let’s walk through an example:
In a meeting.
“We have a problem. We are having problems with availability of a critical part and it is holding up production.”
“We changed suppliers and they are falling behind.”
“Why did we change suppliers?” (#2)
“The original source was too expensive.”
“They needed to keep their prices up to deliver the service we required.”
“Why did we require that level?” (#4)
“To keep our production line running efficiently.”
“If it was running efficiently, why did we change?” (#5)
While this example isn’t particularly great, it does illustrate how the process works. And it identifies the root cause: short term cost cutting.
This is all great but how does it relate to being mindful?
Mindfulness is about being focused on the moment
Mindfulness is often solely equated with meditation. However, true mindfulness means directly focusing your attention at any given point to the action you are doing then. Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Han famously says:
“When washing dishes, wash dishes”
Don’t think about how you don’t like it, or how you wish you were somewhere else or anything else. Just do a good job washing dishes. Easier said than done in our attention-deficit, go-go world.
The Whys keep us zeroed in on the subject at hand
The subject at hand in the Whys example above was finding the root cause of the problem so it could be fixed. I don’t know about you but I’ve been in many such meetings where things went quickly off track. Some played a blame game. Others made excuses. Others went off on brainstorming solutions before the problem was clear.
The group seeking a solution had lost focus. They were not being mindful of the problem at hand and eliminating outside pressures like worrying about how this issue might affect your job or standing within the group.
The facilitator asking the whys is not being a provocateur. They are using the technique to keep bringing the group back to the matter at hand. If a non-relevant answer like “because they suck” comes up, she steers things back to fixing the problem by saying ‘why do they suck?”, before the meeting degenerates into office politics.
We have office politics in our heads
When I’m trying to be mindful of the task at hand, I have sometimes conflicting personal interests. Maybe it is really nice outside and I don’t want to be in here working. Maybe a part of me has a nice excuse for not doing this right now. Anyone who has tried to meditate and clear their thoughts knows these competing influences very well. They are very compelling, especially when your ass hurts and there is an itch on your back that suddenly appeared.
You get off track and suddenly time has gone by without achieving a degree of focus.
Asking yourself the Whys
Focus on the dishes. But I want to be outside now. Why? Because it is more fun. Why? Doing dishes sucks! Why? It’s wet and there are a lot of them. Why? Because we had a big dinner.
I know, annoying. Very annoying. But the logic of why I want to go outside is at conflict with my need to clean the kitchen. With whys, the excuses lose their compelling power.
It’s really about circling back
The challenge of mindfulness is to keep circling back to the subject at hand until the distractions no longer make sense or lose their power. Our ability to do this is a learned skill. Once we use games, like the whys, to train ourselves, that training becomes more automatic. It becomes easier to take a breath, enjoy the hot soapy water and the shrinking pile of dirty dishes and just do a good job, in the moment.
This learned ability to concentrate is critical to moving forward in any discipline. My discipline happens to be writing and I have taught myself over the years to immerse myself into the task at hand, without doing real time criticism. It’s a flow state. Time goes by and you finish your work. You likely set it aside and come back to it later for evaluation. At that point your mindfulness is focused on editing and rewriting, tasks which require a draft before you can start them.
Creativity, business, and life in general require growth. You use tools like asking yourself ‘why?’ to train yourself to perform at the next level.