During the Second Certificate Program in rural Nicaragua, held during the first week of September, participants were escorted more deeply into the worlds of open book management and Lean process improvements. Having experienced a taste of both methodologies in the First Certificate Program, conducted last year, producers expressed a desire to know more about the concepts and how to apply them. These programs are all about organizational strengthening, and these two initiatives are as important to organizational health as any strength-building efforts.
For teaching Lean, the Foundation enlisted the expertise of Brian Kopas, of Fabcon Precast in Savage, Minnesota. (Brian was an important presence at Foldcraft Co., where he honed that company’s storied strengths in continuous improvement.) Brian’s expertise and inviting demeanor won over the Nicaraguan participants thoroughly as he introduced the elements of Lean. And among those elements, Brian asked “why?” A lot.
Asking “why” is one of the core tools employed in any Lean implementation, and maybe especially so in an environment where tradition and culture play such a big role in defining activities and protocols. So Brian was quite specific in encouraging his audience to ask “why” at least five times before settling on the root cause of any problem in need of a fix. To do otherwise was to simply assume the reason for a difficulty, which can lead to missing the solution due to not knowing the real problem! “Drilling down” to the real cause of a difficulty requires discipline and patience, but leads to a much better identification of the root cause of our pain.
It’s not a usual practice for anyone, and certainly not for rural Nicaraguan producers, who have followed the habits and traditional wisdom of past generations. Think about it for a moment, as in this hypothetical sequence: your production of coffee in this cycle is down. “Why?” (Your initial observation might be that a fungus has infested part of your crop.) You might go no further in your analysis and respond by destroying your plants and starting all over again, in hopes that in the next cycle you will be luckier. Instead, Lean would have you ask “Why” has the fungus attacked. The answer this time is that the fungus affects coffee plants that have not been fully protected by proper nutrients and care. “Why?” Because there have been insufficient resources to purchase all of the necessary inputs for a successful crop. “Why?” Because the limited resources available were used for discretionary spending by each producer, rather than partially contributed to a general coop fund for a collaborative “emergency” response to threats. “Why?” Because the notion of an effectively-functioning cooperative has been lost over the years, and the organization has come to be seen as simply an access point to outside funders. After five “why’s” we might see the fungus disaster in a new light, a problem of institutional purpose and not one of plant biology.
The Certificate Program attendees became pretty good at asking the five why’s, though it’s not as easy as it may sound. As is true with most tools, it only becomes effective with practice. But over the course of our week together, participants were playfully (and effectively) asking “why” about nearly everything, a process that gradually made it clear to them the importance of the question. The hope is that the exercise becomes a habit, and then an actual tool for eliminating many of the pains of their work lives.
A treatise on the use of the “five why’s” in the Certificate Program might seem like an odd entry for a blog topic here. But in observing the impact of the tool upon the newly-introduced, it dawned on me that the process, in fact, isn’t just for the agricultural producer or factory worker or office administrator. The process of asking “why” takes us closer to the truth of whatever issue might be complicating our lives. Our human tendencies to jump to conclusions, without seeing the full extent of the issues before us, often lead us to wasteful and even dangerous end results. Seeing the true, underlying causes of our difficulties is the first step in finding solutions, to becoming truly wise.
Many rural cooperatives in Nicaragua are disintegrating. “Why?” Because they have limited access to financial and learning resources. “Why?” Because they are perceived to be poor risks for credit and education investment. “Why?” Because development agencies have little knowledge of and relationship with them. “Why?” Because the effort and cost in traveling to rural sites to listen to the peasants’ own analysis of circumstances is too great. “Why?”