Ask a simpler question - real data speaks louder

· September 12, 2014

David J Andersson

David J Andersson (the father of kanban in the software community) has taught me a lot, and that’s probably an understatement too. Because I’ve learned immensely from him. One of the best hands-on tricks that he taught me was really just one sentence. And I’m not sure he meant to say it at that point, but it’s proven invaluable for me:

“Ask a simpler question!”

The longer version is something like: “If you find that you don’t get the answers you want try to ask a simpler question”. I think this is a general great tip that can be applied in all kinds of situations and contexts, but in this post I wanted to tell you about how I just did that in order to get an entire company to understand their situation and starting to move towards something better (whatever that means, I’ll talk about that too).

I’ve been working for sometime with a company that is struggling financially. Or rather is on the verge to collapse financially. And have been in this state for quite some time. Everyone “knows” this, but no action is taken, no initiatives are coming.

The information has been sent out. The reports have been read. Speeches and explanations has been made. Even training with vital staff has been undertaken. Still they struggle. Still no action or awareness even. People doesn’t seem too bother about the fact that their company is about to go bankrupt and all of them will end up without a job.

This leaves me and my colleagues puzzled.

I sat down with a couple of colleagues (that are acting as consultants for this hospital) and tried to understand how this have happened and why nothing was done. We came to the conclusion that during all these years (and it’s been a downhill slope for more than 5 years) the staff in the organisation has not really understood. It was a management problem described in management terms and hence should be solved in management.

The new adventures of the old Christine]

This reminds me of a small scene from the “The new adventures of the old Christine” where Christine is collecting money for an environmental charity. The other school mums doesn’t want to donate. So Christine asks:

“But are you not worried about the environment and the future of the planet? The future of your kids?”

Answer from couldn’t-care-less-moms: “Nah … the scientist will figure it out.”

The only thing is … the scientist have already. They need us all to change in order to make it happen.

The situation the company in this blog post was facing was the same one. We need more customers. Everyone knows this, but it seems like they think that this is not their problem. However; we need the help from everyone to get there.

At this point David’s words came to me: “Ask a simpler question”. So we did a single very simple diagram. Or actually it proved quite hard to produce the diagram, but once it was in place it proved simple to keep updated and understand.

Instead of talking about incomes and expenditure, prognosis and budget, debts, account receivable, financial costs and operating costs (that are all hard to grasp and quite frankly… yaawn a bit … brrr … boring) we brought it down to one single measurement:

How many customers do we need to have each day to do good?



We visualised this in a BIG diagram that we update every morning in front of all the staff.

The diagram have two horizontal lines; the target we’re aiming for and the break-even point. Our explanations to these numbers are:

  • If we don’t reach break even we are actually losing money that day. If we loose money we can evolve, renovate or improve the company. If we loose money for a long time the company goes out of business
  • The target line is where we want to be. If we here, or above, we can start to develop and improve the business, build new services and rooms.

Board with actions

Next to that big diagram we have a list of the 3 (no more than 3, remember Limit WIP, people) improvement actions the company is working with right now to increase the number of customers. With status and responsible person. For each action we have also listed what we are aiming to have completed by tomorrow, this encourage taking small, small steps to improve. We have also created a section where anyone can post new ideas on how to improve the number of patients, shown to the right of this board.

Back to the question (“How many customers do we need to have each day to do good?”) and reason for the this blog post. There’s a couple of parts to it:

We’re counting the number of customers per day. This is easy to grasp and make a mental picture of. How many people walk through our doors each day?

  • In reality there’s a few different kind of customers, but we only show the total. The distribution is shown in a separate excel sheet that we will show and describe to anyone that wants too.

To do good” hides a lot of details, but for the most part you don’t need to remember what they are. This is the target that we need to reach, that’s often good enough.

  • We have of course informed and repeats what’s included in the target (Paying the staff adequate salary, Covering all our costs and making profit) and we have a separate excel sheet showing the details, for those that want to know that
  • We have then converted that number into number of customers based on the average incomes per type of customer.

We update the diagram every day. In front of everyone. Our intention is not to have big discussion but to leave someone from top management sticking around and answering questions and picking up ideas.

We post excel printout showing the last month and the yearly trend (not yet, but they are being created). These printouts is helpful when people start to question the data (GREAT!) and for reference.

We have made some big simplifications here, for example:

  • Only showing total and not the distribution of different kinds of customers
  • Boiling down all our finances to a single target; number of patients per day

This is quite intentionally since we just want to make a quick awareness for everyone. The details can be shown on request.

Initial reflections

Even though it took about a week worth of discussions and preparations to get this in front of everyone I could almost hear the lightbulbs turn on as it was presented to the staff. Already after the first time we had some new ideas.

These speaks to facts very loudly to me:

  • Make things visual and be transparent with the real data to get peoples attention
  • Ask simpler questions to make everyone understand. The details can be explained later.

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