By Burl W. Randolph, Jr.

Setting the Scene
Everyone has a favorite word or phrase, with mine identified as “Why?” As a former intelligence officer, why became a natural question for three reasons. First, the initial report is always wrong. Second, Occam’s Razor does not always cut it. Third and most important, the real or true problem is almost always behind the stated or given problems. Enter Mrs. Smith.

The First Report: The Amicable Mrs. Smith
Not her real name of course, but Mrs. Smith represented what any employer desired. She was professional, courteous, tactful, and amicable. Mrs. Smith appeared as a dream to a leader in an executive position, and everyone liked Mrs. Smith except for one thing: Mrs. Smith worked at a pace much slower than her colleagues. This slowness created backlogs in Human Resources (HR) administrative processing. Although likable, the Assistant HR Director wanted Mrs. Smith transferred from the office. So I asked “Why? Why did Mrs. Smith perform so slowly?”

Occam’s Razor: The Plot Thickens
Directed to dismiss the offensive rationale of Mrs. Smith’s age as the cause of her performance, and with the transfer request disapproved, the HR office decided to train Mrs. Smith. The training consisted of completing the daily time and attendance reporting for over 550 personnel. A turn-in time of 10:00am daily was established but the reporting was submitted late every day for two weeks – which cast Mrs. Smith as the culprit. Under fire once again, Mrs. Smith decided to ask the question “Why?”

Partially Identifying the Problem
Mrs. Smith requested to speak with the CEO on the Employee Grievance Policy to ask the question “Why?” Mrs. Smith did not want to know why her supervisor wanted her transferred, or why her co-workers believed she worked slowly. Rather she wanted to know “Why had the alleged slowest person in the office been assigned to complete the ever important time and attendance report, which impacted employee pay and vacation days?” Mrs. Smith was not an HR specialist but an accomplished administrative specialist.

The Gatekeeper
Serving as the administrative assistant for the executive leadership team for a period of one week, Mrs. Smith performed flawlessly. All messages, calendars, appointments, and meetings were meticulously maintained, correspondence impeccable, and visitor control achieved a new level of excellence. Mrs. Smith arrived at work early, stayed late when necessary, and performed exemplary, so why did Mrs. Smith’s performance diminish in HR?

An Unlikely Culprit
A few days after returning to work in the HR office, Mrs. Smith failed to arrive at work one morning. Unable to reach her by phone, and without a cellphone, the office dispatched personnel to Mrs. Smith’s home. Along the route, the Soldiers noticed a car that looked like Mrs. Smith’s stopped at a green light, with the driver slumped over the steering wheel. Alarmed, the Soldiers rushed to render aide, only to discover the driver as Mrs. Smith! Not just why but how did Mrs. Smith literally fall asleep at the wheel?

Mrs. Smith received a complete medical evaluation which determined a stress-induced sleep disorder. Mrs. Smith, a widower in her late sixties, felt so anxious about her performance in a new but unfamiliar position, she would fret late into the night. Mrs. Smith often performed on only four to six hours of sleep. During the period Mrs. Smith served as the Executive Administrative Assistant, she slept well and without a care in the world, confident of the position she had assumed.

The Paradox Behind the Problem
The first report on Mrs. Smith’s performance indicated slowness, when in reality her condition created tiredness. Being labeled as slow caused Mrs. Smith’s stress-induced condition. Lack of training exasperated the condition. Mrs. Smith proved herself an accomplished administrative specialist, but not an HR specialist, because all of the HR tasks were foreign to her.

Why Ask Why?
After avoiding a potential age discrimination equal opportunity lawsuit, and averting a tragedy on the road, the three levels of leaders in question were asked “Why did no one identify the issues?” The bane of any intelligence officer’s existence provided the answer: assumptions. Assumptions that 25 years of experience in administration would easily transfer to HR, although the two fields are different. Mrs. Smith transferred to the organization under a corporate restructuring so she had no choice, no welcome, and no training.

Why Ask Why? Asking a series of why questions (normally three) moves below the surface issues, and identifies mitigating causes, to arrive at the real problems. Not a foolproof method, but one that worked well in the military for over 31 years.

And Mrs. Smith? Mrs. Smith’s medical condition afforded her the opportunity for early medical retirement.

And the Assistant HR Director? Sent to anger management and sensitivity training.

How has the question “Why?” helped you to uncover the root cause of situations? Share your stories below.

Blog_Bottom_Divider_BFull Course: Project Triage: Rescuing Troubled Projects (2 days)

Click here for our full list of available courses!