Don't Start With Why

In times of crisis, asking “why” something has happened is far less important than taking action. So when failure bursts onto the scene, asking, “What do we do?” is far superior to “Why did this happen?” Far too often, operations professionals opt for a find blame-first mindset.

It is not hard to understand the emotional appeal of looking for a throat to choke. For example, an unexpected issue, defect, or customer escalation has surfaced. Its existence now dictates that your team dedicate some time to addressing the matter. There are impacts to planned or dependent activities, predictability is upended, and resource reassignment or reallocation may be needed. In addition, you must answer questions from senior leaders, apologies to customers are likely required, and there may be financial or reputational (personally or organizationally) impacts to endure. Stress often accompanies problems and mistakes, and stress quickly triggers the hunt to find who or what is responsible for the disruption.

If someone’s heart stops or something adversely impacts the heart’s function, the immediate action is to get it beating again or restore it to a normal rhythm. First responders are not concerned with why it stopped or why it malfunctioned. They take action to minimize the damage and leave the “why’s” for later discovery by other medical professionals.

Operations are the heart of a business, so when a disruption occurs, the focus should be on restoring order to minimize the impact on the organization and, ultimately, the customer. A detailed root cause analysis or performance management response can wait. The typical accountability reaction of “Who is responsible?” must shift intentionally to a more impactful question of “What can I do to get the situation under control?”

Can I help solve or mitigate the issue?

Can I quickly assemble any needed resources?

Can I brief senior management that actions are underway to quell concern?

Can I assure customers that we are addressing the issue?

Can I focus the team on finding solutions and not building defense mechanisms?

Can I funnel and address questions to allow the team to concentrate on solutions?

Resisting the temptation to ask “why” takes discipline. The individuals involved in a business disruption often fall prey to a victim mindset. When confronted with poor performance, unsatisfactory results, or a business failure, most people immediately begin to formulate excuses, rationalizations, and arguments for why they should not be held accountable, or at least not fully accountable, for the circumstances the organization has encountered. They justify to themselves that the problem isn’t their fault as both a defense against any potential disciplinary action and as preparation for an expected series of “why” questions. This “CYA” energy is better spent restoring business operations.

Billionaire investor Warren Buffet remarked, “Time is more valuable than money. Time is the one thing you can’t buy.” It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are, your status, wealth, or background; everyone gets the same amount of time. Once you spend that second, minute, or hour, it is gone forever.

The criticality of business operations requires judicious use of time, so in times of crisis, first, ask, “What can I do?” and not “Why did it happen?”

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