Why Not Ask Why?

 Turning Point

In manufacturing today, the word “why” may be the single most powerful weapon to weather the current recession. Asking why can trump its interrogative cousins—who, what, where, when and how—by allowing us to drill down beyond the surface of a given task, and, in doing so, unleash creative potential that can move a company, a process and an individual forward.

It’s especially important in today’s leaner business climate that as many people as possible be looped into the goals of the organization. Fundamentally, this means replacing an environment that operates under a “do what you’re told” convention with one open to the question of why.

According to an old friend of mine, Dr. Subu Subramanian, director of the Higgins Grinding Technology Center, traditional task-oriented physical labor must be replaced with an environment that fosters creative abilities. This environment includes encouraging asking and getting answers to the question “why” as well as developing solutions and solving problems to create and implement new things.

Subu says, “Manufacturing has two components: Process know-how and repeating the process. In other words, once a shop figures out how to make something, it proceeds to make it over and over the same way. But repeating the same thing over and over is not experience. Historically, manufacturers have tended to ignore understanding the ‘why’ behind the processes that we repeat.”

Obviously the more potentially valuable of the two is process knowledge. Unfortunately, this knowledge often resides with just a few individuals who tend to guard it. This is so “old school.”

As an example, long ago when I was a fresh-faced shop rat, my supervisor gave me a job to do in the shop. It was menial, but took me quite a while to successfully finish. When I finished, he said, “If you had done it this way it would have taken much less time.” I asked him, why didn’t you tell me that up front? His response: “Then you’d know what I know.” I submit that today’s manufacturing enterprise can ill afford wielding knowledge as a weapon.

I think this speaks to Subu’s point. It’s in the best interest of the business to broaden the base of participation in the creative/process knowledge component of manufacturing in order to advance, in a competitive and profitable way, the repetitive component.

In other words, “set it and forget it” doesn’t cut mustard in today’s global manufacturing environment. Globally, the U.S. manufacturing base is by far the best at process knowledge and creativity. Where we fall down globally is on the repeating side of the process. Others can more efficiently reproduce what they know at a lower cost.

Manufacturing in the main has managed to separate the process knowledge from the aspects of repeating the process. Historically, these have been kept separate.

Subu says, “We have no choice than to take the time to understand the laws governing the process knowledge, the science behind how it works, the engineering as to why we should do something a certain way and the management of the strategy behind the process.

“Of course, there is a need to repeat the processes we know well and in larger quantities, but the mere repeating of what we already know well will not lead to innovation needed to remain competitive in the manufacturing world today,” Subu continues. “To make change, we must institute science, engineering and management in order to transform any and all aspects of the process possible.”

I think at its nub, the key to getting this transformational ball rolling is to establish an environment and culture; asking “why” is expected and an answer like “because that’s how we do it” is banished. Employees’ creative skills can only be applied to the repeat side of manufacturing when it’s OK to ask the why question. Why not? 