Do you have any special ‘Leadership’ questions?

My Leadership Questions are Rudyard Kipling’s 6 Honest Serving Men

“I keep six honest serving-men
they taught me all I know
their names are What and Why and When
and How and Where and Who:

So how do I use these questions – let’s imagine we are seeing a dramatic drop in sales in a specific specific Quarter.

Question 1.
My first question is usually ‘What’ is the problem – this gives me an idea as what the problem is that is causing the drop in Sales at XYZ location. Remember the expression : a problem well defined is a problem half-solved!
In this stage I am working the problems that keep getting described until I am confident that I I have a fair idea about what the true problem is, and am able to define it in a few words such that anyone can understand it.
I typically introduce the concept of ‘SMART’ for defining the problem statement that I derive from the ‘What’ question (SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely)

Question 2.
The next question I would ask would be ‘Where’ is the problem.
If I know which part of the country has the problem I am again eliminating other areas that are not contributors to the problem.
The Where question pinpoints specific regions, branches that are contributing the Sales problem. (Another approach is to ask where do we not have this problem?)

Question 3.
I usually Ask ‘Who’ has the problem as the third question – this helps in zeroing down to the Location head, Branch manager, or Sales Director at the specific location(s) where the problem exists. Again we are in the process of eliminating the teams that are not a part of the problem

Question 4.
My fourth question is typically the ‘When’ question – I like to ask since when have we had the problem – in other words, if sales are dropping since when did we first notice the trend? This is critical to any analysis or problem solving because we can also determine what significant changes did we have in the environment  that could have triggered the problem?
I also like to ask ‘When’ did we not have this problem – again it allows me to map out what was different when we did not have the problem?

Question 5.
My fifth question is usually around the ‘How’ – as in ‘How’ much of the drop in sales is really the problem. What I mean by this is if we typical operate within defined upper and lower control limit when it comes to sales revenues, and if our standard is that < 5% volume or revenue drop is an acceptable loss in any given Qtr, we can determine by how much we are off target. So if sales are down by 8.5%, we have a 3.5% problem in our hands.

Question 6.
My sixth and last question is typically the ‘Why’ question – and probably where I spend most of my time. I ask Why  over and over until I am satisfied that I have the root cause – here is something I heard the great Masaaki Imai (Kaizen author) articulate in a seminar I once attended:
Supervisor observes man throwing sand on shop floor and asks:
Supervisor: Why are you throwing sand on the shop floor
Operator: Because it is slippery
Supervisor: Why is it slippery?
Operator: Because there is oil on the floor
Supervisor why is there oil on the floor?
Operator: Because it keeps dripping from the Engine head
Supervisor: Why is it dripping from the Engine Head?
Operator: because the Gasket is worn out
Supervisor: Then change the Gasket!
(Root cause was the gasket being worn)

The Why questions help me determine the true cause for the problem. Once the root cause is determined the effort required to address it and get back on track is so much easier to accomplish than if you simply keep throwing sand on the shop floor!


Ineffectiveness occurs in a specific sort of environment. When the organization is too busy measuring activities (eg number of cold calls made, number of rings before the phone is picked up, etc) versus measuring and monitoring efficacy or efficiency gains (eg how many cold calls does it take to convert 1 single, qualified lead, or how many customers who were responded to within the required number of rings, will testify that they were satisfied overall with the way their call was handled.
Therefore, simply asking ‘tough questions’ or having a devil’s advocate to challenge the Status Quo may not always produce the desired result. We need to ask the tough questions about the ‘right’ things. Are we measuring efficiency gains or just counting activities (ticking boxes). The Japanese TQC Management Gurus had a simple system in the early 80’s – to measure a competitors process efficiency they would look at 3 factors QCD or Quality, Cost and Delivery where Quality= the error rate, Cost is the cost of rework and delivery is percent of delivery on time and in full. Think of asking the tough questions in a similar vein (yes these 3 factors will fit almost all business models). That will truly get your organization’s attention!


Rudyard Kipling wrote a short poem that proposes a powerful set of questions:

I keep six honest serving men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

While at Tokyo, several years ago, I was fortunate to visit several plants and manufacturing facilities, as well as gather, first hand, the Japanese self directed work groups and their supervisors/managers, as they performed extraordinary problem solving and quality improvement projects…not through asking ‘tough questions’ but more by following the basic framework laid out by Mr. Rudyard Kipling so many years ago.

Here is an example of how these ‘6 faithful serving men’ may be put to good use:
Problem – Sales are slipping in your Toronto location.

Ask: What do we know about the market? What could be causing us to lose sales? What are the competitors doing differently? and on and on…

Why: Why are we losing sales? Why are other branch offices not losing sales (London, Kitchener, Ajax, etc), Why did we lose that last deal? Why did our competitor win that last bid? and on and on…

When: When did we start losing business in Toronto? When did we lose our first big deal? When did our competitors start catching up on us? When were we not losing business in Toronto (these questions automatically trigger additional probing of ‘What’ were we doing differently when we were not losing business or when we were winning business? and on and on…

How: How can we stop the losses? How can we get back to a winning position in Toronto? How can we learn from our Competitors? How can we benchmark with other similar industries in our market that are doing better than us? and on and on…

Why: Why are our competitors doing better than us? Why did we lose that last bid/deal? Why are our competitors winning? Why do our customers seem to want to leave us now? Why did our customers not want to leave us in the past, why did we win that last big deal? (ask why 5 times at least for critical issues to get to the root cause) and on and on…

Who: Who are the members on our sale team who have still been winning business? Who are the members on our teams who have consistently been losing sales? Who were on the team that lost the last big deal? Who were on the team that won the last few big deals? Who are our top 3 competitors? Who are the clients who have stayed with us (re-use the Why question here – why did they stay?), and on and on…

So you can see that it is really not about tough questions but more a framework if questioning that will get you from point a to point b in better understanding almost any potential business or organizational roadblock you are trying to navigate through.

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