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Written by Bryan Brady   
Tuesday, 08 December 2009

A few years ago I attended a seminar about relating to your customer. The instructor asked for a few people to come to the front to help him with a project. We approached a table set up with a ream of paper, a few pairs of scissors, a couple of rulers, and some pencils. Our project, as described by our instructor-turned-customer, was to cut a few thousand one-inch squares out of the paper. We had only a few minutes to complete the task. There were about a half dozen of us volunteers, and to clarify the task, we could ask any question before the task started. It seemed we asked all the wrong questions before we got started, unknowingly missing the most important question of all.

After a few minutes it was clear that we were not going to achieve the objective, as we had spent most of the time tracing lines, making accurate cuts, and various other things that made the process very slow. When the project deadline passed, we had maybe a hundred squares. When the instructor asked us what happened, we told him we didn’t have enough time for the difficulty of the project and the accuracy it required. The instructor agreed with our assessment but mentioned that we failed on more than one front. Not only did we not complete the requirements in time, but we failed to understand the whole purpose of the project.

In short, we didn’t ask, “Why?”

We were given a chance to redo the project and start again. We were given the same chance to ask whatever questions we liked to help us understand the project. This time we asked “why” questions. It didn’t take us long to discover that our customer really wasn’t interested in whether or not the squares were exactly one inch wide or that the squares were even square. These requirements stemmed from a lack of confidence in the square-making team and from being unsure of how to communicate what it was he really wanted.

By asking the “why” questions we found that the customer really wanted confetti!

Once we knew what the end result was supposed to be, we asked all kinds of questions: how important was it that each piece was a one-inch square, when did he need the confetti, and so on. Soon there were scissors clipping, paper tearing, and thousands of bits of paper flying all over the table. Most important, we had a happy customer.

Several months ago, I worked a project that had been underway for a while. The team had a meeting with all of the customers, stakeholders, development teams, and project managers to determine why the project seemed to be derailed. The development teams had recently done an estimate for the remaining work based on the information they had been given by previous project managers. The estimate basically highlighted what development thought they knew was all wrong. The customers didn’t think that the development team had any business estimating the rest of the project, as they didn’t have all of the required information. After a bit of wrangling by the parties in attendance, we created a new plan and laid out a path that all involved parties.

Development still didn’t know all of the “whys” of the project, but the framework was established for the future, and communication between the development teams, project management, and the customers has never been better. In many instances, because we tried to understand the “why” behind each part of the system, we have discovered faster and cheaper ways to supply the desired result. The relationship between all of the parties has improved immensely, the trust and confidence in the project continues to grow, and our customers will be happy.

All because we remember to ask the question, “Why?”

Bryan Brady is a senior software engineer for the Church.

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