Questioning Assumptions with Intelligence

“Question everything!” You’ve heard this a million times. You probably try to do it, sometimes, too. The underlying tenants of The Goal, the Theory of Constraints, Lean, and other methodologies relies on questioning assumptions. It’s important, but what exactly does it mean, and what do you do afterward?

First off, it’s not a license to literally ask questions about every business decision at every opportunity. Many questions can be answered in your own head before you open your mouth, so there’s no need to bother others with those questions. For the rest, go back to the theory of constraints and ask yourself if it’s a bottleneck first. If not, the answer might not matter. Above all, always be courteous and understanding of the situation before speaking. If you do literally question everything, you will be treated like an a-hole of the first degree and your message will be lost. There’s a time and place for everything. Continuing on…

In the right context, “Hey, wait a minute, why exactly are we doing that?” is a good question. Sometimes there is a good answer,  but other times the answer is simply, “because.” That’s not a good answer. For example, someone who lives in SoCal suggested I salt my car’s tires in the winter. Though I have lived in the north, I had never heard of doing that. I asked where they learned to do that. Many years ago, the person went to college in Pittsburgh and saw buckets of salt near parking areas. They saw someone else pour salt around their car’s tires, so they assumed that is what it was intended for. Turns out it was for the sidewalks.

You might find what that person did humorous, but before you snicker, look around your business – are you sure you’re not doing something simply because your colleague or predecessor did it? A long time ago, I found out I had been swapping backup tapes every morning on a system that had been decommissioned but not powered off. Whoops! This is cargo cult behavior, and we all participate in it at some point in our lives. Businesses do it A LOT. The important thing is that we come to understand what we are doing and correct the behavior.

When you do find some broken assumption, you must be smart in how you address it. Again, make sure it’s a constraint. A little salt around the tires won’t really hurt anything, but putting salt in the gas tank certainly would. Focus the efforts on the constraints. Figure out what is wrong with the assumption and how to make it right. When you find these broken assumptions, there’s no need to blame or ridicule someone. You fixed a problem, everyone should be happy! Once you make some correction, take a look at the other assumptions in your system and see if they were affected. Decisions in the fundamental parts of the system tend to have cascading effects further down the line.

This is an iterative process. If you question an assumption this year and there’s a good reason for it, you will eventually want to revisit it, maybe next year or in 5 years. Change is perpetual and you should embrace it, not flee from it.