Better Not Ask Why (A Parable)
A young woman, the oldest of four children, has been hired to work at the local factory in her town. It’s her first job and she’s excited to begin what she hopes will be a career at the town’s largest employer. Friends and family congratulate her and ask what, exactly, she’ll be doing. She tells them all, “I don’t really know, but I’m sure it’s going to be something exciting. They make all kinds of products there.”
On her first day, she wakes up extra early to make sure she arrives on time. By lunchtime, she is already exhausted.
The factory is a sprawling complex of connected buildings and her orientation sessions take her across what feels like the entire campus. Along the way, she meets people from many different divisions and in introduced to terms and expressions she’s never heard before. The man in charge of the orientation keeps telling her and the other employees, “Don’t worry too much. I know everything probably seems confusing right now but it will all make sense once you’ve been here a few weeks.”
After lunch, she receives her specific job assignment along with the number of the building where she’ll be working. Her shift supervisor explains that she will be working on connection boards, which are used in several of the products manufactured at the factory. More specifically, her job is to bend sets of colored wires to specified angles so that they can be connected easily to their boards.
The young woman works hard to make sure that her wires are bent precisely and at the correct angles. As she works, she imagines all the things the wires she’s shaping might be used for.
At the end of her first week, her supervisor congratulates the young woman on her productivity and efficiency. As a reward, he says, “I’m moving you up to a more important station.”
In this next station, the young woman is tasked with connecting wires to a wooden board with metal posts. These are the same type of wires she had been bending in her previous position, and she remembers the exact angles to which the wires are bent and the amount of space that separates them. Unfortunately, she discovers the metal posts on the boards require that the wires be bent at different angles and positioned at different widths. This forces her to redo all the work being done at her previous station in order to connect the wires.
When she mentions the apparent disconnect to her supervisor, the man says, “We never ask ‘why’ on the floor. That’s for the people upstairs.”
A month later, the young woman is promoted to a new position, where she finds herself placing the wired boards onto large plastic sheets. She immediately notices that the boards she has been working on are too long and too wide for the plastic sheets. As a result, the workers in this division have been removing the wires from the boards and reconnecting them directly to small screws that are located on the plastic sheets. This reconnection requires workers to rebend the wires the way she had done in her original post.
The young woman is sure there must be some mistake so she shares her observation with the building manager. He listens intently and shakes his head, “You’re not the first person to notice this,” he says. “I’m not sure when we started to things this way but, you know what they say. We never ask ‘why’ on the floor. That’s for the people upstairs.”
This answer frustrates the young woman because she knows how inefficient things are. She also realizes that all the inefficiencies must be costing the company plenty of money.
But, since she doesn’t see any way to change things in her current position, she simply commits herself to work as hard as she can.
Before the young woman knows it, several years have passed and, along the way, she has discovered a whole host of other inefficiencies.
There are new product parts that remain unused because they don’t fit properly, yet the factory continues to produce them.
Multiple teams work on the same product line, often repeating work that has already been done, but the wasteful redundancy goes unchecked because only a few people have any idea what end product they are working on.
And in every instance, pointing out the problems has led to the same answer.
“We never ask ‘why’ on the floor. That’s for the people upstairs.”
After working at the factory for five years, a manager asks to meet with the young woman one afternoon. He informs her that the company is struggling financially. “Several of our latest products have not been as popular as we had hoped. We have also had an unexpected number of defect claims, and our costs are running way too high. As a result, the Executive Team has decided to reduce our workforce. Unfortunately, your position is being eliminated.”
The woman is completely un preprepared for the news and asks the manager to help her understand.
“These types of events are always difficult to understand,” he says. “I find it best not to ask “why” when such things happen. That’s for the people upstairs to figure out.”
The woman is incredibly disappointed to lose her job but, as she looks back over her experience at the factory, she realizes that it was probably inevitable.
No one had ever cared enough to ask why things were being done the way they were. Why product parts weren’t redesigned to fit properly. Why tasks weren’t streamlined to eliminate frustrating and costly redundancies. Why no one was trained to understand the importance of their particular task and how it contributed to the final product.
No one cared enough to ask why so nothing improved. In fact, with each passing year, things only got worse.
Six months later, the woman has moved on to manage the local grocery store. She is hardly surprised, when one day, a former factory supervisor comes in to apply for an assistant manager position. During the interview, he tells her that he doesn’t understand what happened to their former company.
“The company didn’t have to fail,” he says. “I just don’t understand why they didn’t make changes sooner.”
The woman smiles at him and says, “Why? That’s a very good question.”
When we don’t ask “Why?” and encourage others to do the same, we create meaningless bureaucracies that don’t care and that do things they don’t understand. There is no strategy, no path forward for growth without “Why?”