Why?

Today I attended my team’s retrospective. The session started with going over the project time line and then moved to the exercise of writing down “What we did well, not so well and what mystifies us”. On the “what we did well” list, there were “the team stepped up and worked long and hard in Jan & Feb”, “This person saved us from dealing with build issues” or “We had a mini application server for testing” and so forth. These points demonstrated that we are a high-functioning team, certain people showed heroic efforts and the team is resourceful. This is good stuff but do these points also point to something else?

During the retrospective session I applied a simple technique mentioned in a book written by Patrick McDermott called “Zen and the Art of Systems Analysis”. The technique is to ask “why?”. Why did the team step up and work long hours? Why did Joe have to save us from the build issues? Why did we need another application server for testing? When asked why, these points beg a deeper analysis. More whys.

Asking why is something I don’t do a lot in my adult life. As a child I was taught it’s not polite to ask too many whys. I have to get over this childhood conditioning because it’s a powerful and useful word. Masaaki Imai, the founder of Kaizen Institute, recommends the “5 Whys” technique because chances are the root cause of an issue is 5 whys away.

With an awareness of the power of the word why, I can say my experience with today’s retrospective is very enriching. From now on, the word why will be close to my tongue. Mind you, with this new technique, I’m aware that I have to maintain a fine balance between being useful and being annoying.

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