How to quickly find the cause of a performance problem

Your client thinks a course will solve their problem, but you’re not so sure. Help the client see the real cause by asking not only “why?” but also “what for?” Learn more.

How to quickly find the cause of a performance problem

By Cathy Moore

“Why” is a useful question when you’re getting to the root of a performance problem. But it has a more powerful cousin: “What for?” Here’s an example.

Your client, Joe, wants ethics training.

“People are lying when they file their performance reports,” he says. “They say they did more work than they actually completed. So I want you to create a one-hour course on ethics.”

You could obey and make grownups sit through a course that tells them it’s wrong to lie, or you could examine the problem more closely. Let’s examine the problem, and start with “why.”

“Why” is easy to dodge

“Why are people lying on their performance reports?” you ask.

“Because they don’t realize how important it is to be honest,” Joe says. “That’s why they need a course on ethics.”

Joe has answered your question in good faith, but you haven’t made any progress. Joe hasn’t seen any reason to doubt his assumptions.

Let’s rewind and try again, this time with “what for?”

“What for?” uncovers motives

“What do they lie for?” you ask.

“They want to look good even when they can’t do the work,” Joe says. “We have a competitive culture.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. Our next question can be “why” because we’ve steered Joe down a better path.

“Why can’t they do the work?” we ask.

“They have too much on their plates,” Joe says. “And if they ask for help, their managers tell them to stop whining.”

Obviously, a one-hour course on ethics will do nothing for Joe. And now he’s willing to look more deeply at the problem to find a better solution.

This is a variation on an example from the Partner from the Start toolkit, which helps you stop being an order-taker and steer clients toward the most effective solutions.

Another example

“Our patients complain that nurses are abrupt,” our client says. “The nurses just do their tasks quickly and leave. So we need a course on bedside manner.”

Q. Why are the nurses abrupt?

A. Because they don’t understand the importance of bedside manner. That’s why we need a course.

What for?
Q. What are the nurses abrupt for?

A. They don’t want to get drawn into a conversation with the patient, because they have to hurry to the next one. We’re understaffed.

There’s a solution to this problem, and it isn’t a course on bedside manner.

Listen to the types of answers you’re getting

We analyze performance problems to see if training really is part of the solution. If you’re asking “why” and hearing about alleged ignorance (“they don’t understand,” “they don’t think it’s important”), clients will continue to assume that training is the solution. To have them look deeper, try “what for?”

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