Why Ask Why

Have you ever asked yourself why you are doing what you are doing, right now, in the office? Most of the time we spend in the office seems to be composed of a pleasingly familiar set of activities that we have been doing for quite a while. We continue to do what we have been doing usually because at one time or another it worked on a problem. We received the positive feedback we were looking for and incorporated it into our routine. Not to sound too trite but I think we can all agree that today, and looking forward, the business world does not look anything like routine.

Believe it or not I was too young to really remember the 1960’s, but I have read about them and have watched innumerable movies that were set in the period. This of course makes me an expert on the 1960’s. After all this intensive research, and all the popcorn and sodas associated with watching the research, I think you can distill down an entire decade in American history into a two word sentence:

Question everything.

The reason that I have taken this half century retrospective (gosh, is it really fifty years ago?) is that it may be time to dust off the “Oldie but Goldie” catchphrase and start ruthlessly applying it to business.

It is easy to start down a simple road in business. The problem is that almost no road remains simple, or straight. There are always twists and turns, and probably even a few loop-the-loops in every business road.

I’m sorry; I got carried away with my metaphors there. I’ll try to keep that sort of behavior to a minimum.

My point is that every business needs to continually ask itself why is it doing what it is doing. Just because it started down what it thought was the right road a while ago doesn’t mean that it is still the right road today. Again, this is pretty basic stuff, but when it all gets boiled down to the basics, business is really pretty simple.

Business is about customers.

Now despite what the courts or politicians may rule or claim, businesses are not people. I think it is much the contrary, in fact I think it is the opposite: People are business. The business can’t ask itself why it is doing what it is doing, but the people can.

This brings us back to the comfortable routine that the majority of people in business have day in and day out, going down the road that they started out on some time in the past. The easy path, the path of least resistance is to continue down the path that we are on. A plan, program or model may have been put in place and work begun. Chances are that time has passed. At the risk of propellering off into rampant triteness again, if time has passed, chances are that times have changed.

The only real constant in business is customers.

When we begin to ask ourselves why we are doing what we are doing, any question we ask that does not have the word “customer” in it, and does not focus on how to bring value to the customer is probably a wrong question to ask. It will be this single minded approach to how we address changing what we do and why we do it that will enable businesses to navigate the necessary changes in directions, and different roads that must be traversed.

Small businesses are usually held up as models of outward facing, customer oriented businesses. I think this is probably correct. I also think that this is probably not due to any deliberate focus or business magic. I think the reason that small businesses focus on the customer is because they don’t have anything else to focus on. They are small businesses. By definition they do not have much in the way of internal infrastructures, or any of the other trappings of large businesses. They only have an idea or product and customers, so by default that is all they focus on.

It is usually not until a business becomes large and somewhat successful that it begins to focus on things other than customers. This is also the appropriate time to start asking the difficult questions. If you ask yourself the “why are you doing this / is it for the customers’ benefit” question, and you either can’t answer it or associate it with a customer value, then you need to start looking deeper at what you are doing.

Companies seem to begin to lose their way, and their customer focus when they start to concentrate on better ways to do things instead of doing things better. It’s a subtle but important difference. Focusing on a better way to do things means you are shifting your attention to how you are doing something. Focusing on doing things better means you are still focused on what you are doing.

In most instances (but admittedly probably not all instances) your customers will not be particularly interested in how you do something. They will definitely be interested in the result of what you have done. To put it another way, do you really care how a company builds a car? If the company uses all manual processes or a fully automated production line, does that materially affect your buying decision on the car?

Speaking only personally at this point, I don’t remember asking the car salesman those questions the last time I bought a car. I was more interested in the resulting product, its safety, reliability, efficiency, and most importantly if I thought I would look cool driving it.

This again is a good time to bring us back to asking ourselves why we are doing what we are doing. We need to always focus on and keep in mind if what we are doing is providing value to the customer, or if we are doing it for some other reason. Are we internally focused on our own systems, programs and processes and trying to hopefully provide ourselves value or are we focused on improving what we provide to the customer and providing them more value. It may sound a little strange but we need be relentless and ruthless when it comes to customer focus and what we are doing. If we don’t, when we take our eyes and minds off that customer for whatever period of time while we focus on some internal aspect of how we do things, someone else who is focusing on that customer will take that customer away.

The next time you walk into your office and begin your normal start of the day routine, you probably ought to ask yourself “why”.

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