"So What?" - A Powerful Lean Question

It's not quite on par with the 5 whys (heck, that's five questions, more or less), but "so what?" isn't far behind. It's a question that begs closure, as in, "what are we going to do about that?"

Lean can be summarized partly as: 1) find a problem, 2) fix a problem, 3) keep it from coming back, 4) repeat. How can you fix a problem if you don't deal with it or don't understand the situation well enough to even know if there is a problem? "So what?" should be generously applied whenever we assess the current reality.

An Example "So What?" Forum

The daily accountability process, part of a robust lean management system, includes daily tiered meetings. Those brief stand-up meetings typically require, among other things, the review of a handful of key performance metrics as well as issues and barriers that have surfaced over the last 24 hours.

The "so what?" litmus test can be applied to tiered meetings, beginning with the effort to establish the very performance metrics that serve as a critical backdrop for the daily accountability process. We can start the questioning around metric relevancy and move on from there...as in what does it mean to the stakeholders, what is the linkage to the business' strategic imperatives, what does that performance metric graph mean, how do we interpret it, is it actionable, what do those trends mean, are we getting better, getting worse, or staying the same, how are we doing relative to the target...in fact, where is the target!? In other words, "so what?" Implicitly, this is followed by, "now what?" Often, we need to reassess the utility of the performance metrics and retool them so that they drive the right lean thinking and behaviors.

Same goes with the narrative around tiered meetings once they become part of the fabric of daily operation. When an issue is identified, for example, "that's the third time this week that machine X has experienced unplanned downtime," or "the call abandon rate has exceeded the target every Monday for the last three weeks," we can't ignore it. So frequently, we end up reporting the news, collectively agree it's a bad thing, offer some weak commentary, then move onto the next subject. Guess what? That problem is going to come back again unless we drive to the, "so what?"...and then do something about it.

Leadership is a shared responsibility, but if no one else asks, "so what?" the lean leader of the tiered meeting has got to ask it. Unrelentingly...until it comes to a head, until a countermeasure has been identified, with a due date and an accountable person assigned. This is where the daily task accountability board, another part of the daily accountability process,  get's its use. The board captures the actionable answers to the "so what?" question and serves as a visual for assigned countermeasures and their status.

"So what?" is not the same sassy question that we threw around in grade school. Rather, it's a thoughtful question that's founded in a bias for action. So, "so what?"

Related post: Plan Vs. Actual – The Swiss Army Knife of Charts, The Truth Will Set You Free!

There are 4 Comments

markrhamel's picture

Hey Jerry,

Thanks for the comment! It drives me absolutely crazy (as I am sure it does the same for you) when I observe a meeting in which issues are allowed to escape some sort of resolution. These issues then live another day, continue to serve as fodder for further unfruitful discussion and continue to crowd out value-added activity.

Best regards,

Jerry Foster's picture

I like the visual of your dog asking the question. Your explanation relative to the meeting that discusses a problem and never quantifies and assigns responsibility is so common. It begs the question of how intelligent managers (not leaders) can allow an obvious opportunity to improve to slide by, often multiple times.

Capturing the opportunity, clearly, assigning responsibility and targets for resolution get overlooked for what they are in the normal state.


John Bushling's picture

It's a probing question that should demand an answer. Not a sassy question nor a sassy answer.

It also begs the questions (at least for me), Are you having daily stand-up (key point) meetings? Are they centered around a daily updated information board? Is there accountability? Are they tiered to pass along the information? If the answer is 'No", So what? and/or Now what?

Enjoyed the article.

markrhamel's picture

Hi John,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Good lean folks, by and large, are intellectually curious and also become quite impatient when dealing with recurring issues and less than useful information. The stand-up tiered meetings are a great way to engage the team, focus on meaningful stuff and practice continuous improvement.

Best regards,