Meredith and I spend a lot of time talking about frogs and Godzillas – our way of characterizing the formation of crises – the slow, methodical building crises vs. the sudden onslaught crisis.  If fact, we deal with very few Godzillas in our work or even in life.  The truth is that most crises can be predicted far in advance of them becoming a crisis – but only if you really look at the symptoms and ask why they are appearing.  But we usually don’t see the symptoms as that – we think they’re independent, stand-alone problems.

People often see specific problems as “missing solutions” rather than “unexplained symptoms,” so they make choices that guarantee bigger problems in the future.  It’s the equivalent of giving a person aspirin when they have a headache – it works most of the time but not if the person has been in a car accident and suffered a head or neck injury.  In that case, the act of taking the aspirin can cause the person’s death.   One of Peter Senge’s laws of the fifth discipline is

Today’s problems come from yesterday’s “solutions.”

Solving the present “problem” usually results in more “problems” appearing. In crisis management, we call these secondary crises. They’re what happens when we react to a crisis inappropriately or without complete information.

For example, when most people are starting a business have to watch their expenditures very closely – they’re not flush with cash and every penny counts.  They will usually use what they have instead of spending money on something new – keeping their books is a great example.  Unless you are opening a retail shop, most new businesses will use a spreadsheet to keep their books.  As long as the expenditures and receipts are few then the spreadsheet will work fine and you save the time of installing, setting up and learning a new software package.  

But when tax time comes, then the business owner is faced with the task of organizing the records, separating out taxable items from non-taxable items, figuring out percentages – all the actions required to successfully file your taxes while not paying more than you should.  And every business owner that faces this situation will tell you it’s a problem – they don’t have the time and there’s so much else they really need to be doing.  The problem is not that they have to do their taxes and it’s not the time it takes to do so – the problem is that their financial system wasn’t set up to meet their needs correctly to start with.  This is a perfect example of the old saying, “There’s never enough time to do it right the first time, but there’s always time to do it over!”

A great tool to use when faced with what you think is a problem is the 5 Whys. First introduced in America by Philip Crosby in his book, Quality is Free, asking why five times will help you identify the real problem.  Crosby described the tool’s use while he was walking through the factory and noticed a spot of oil on the floor:

1.       He asked, “Why is there a spot of oil on the floor?  (A safety hazard)

The pipe joint above was leaking.

2.       Why is the joint leaking?

There is a bad gasket in the joint.

3.       Why is there a bad gasket in the joint?

Because the wrong gaskets are in the supply room.

4.       Why are there wrong gaskets in the supply room?

Because Purchasing bought the wrong gaskets.

5.       Why did Purchasing buy the wrong gaskets?

Because Purchasing is rewarded for saving money by buying lower quality gaskets.

As you can see, the problem is not that the pipe was leaking oil – that was the symptom.  The policy of requiring Purchasing to buy the lowest cost item, even when it’s not right, was the problem.

The number of times you ask Why is not sacred – three might be enough or you may have to ask seven times.  The important thing is to seek to understand what is the fundamental cause of what appears to be your problem.  By driving down to and solving the real problem, you will be able to prevent more symptoms from appearing.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.