July 20


How to find out what’s really going on in your business

I need more sales.

That’s what I hear most often when I talk to business owners.

Other contenders for most often mentioned issues include:

  • I need better systems
  • My employees don’t do what I want
  • I need to be more efficient

These are all problems that business owners face every day. Trouble is, they aren’t the actual problems these owners are facing.

Let me explain.

The problems most owners I talk to identify are just what’s visible on the surface. So when they try to solve them, the solution is just on the surface, too.

The result?

The problem comes back. Or it never goes away. Or it pops up again in a slightly different form.

That leads to an owner who is frustrated at playing a never-ending game of whack-a-mole. That cycle is the inevitable result of taking a superficial look at a problem and applying a superficial solution.

In my experience, the problem is rarely what’s visible on the surface. Those surface problems are merely symptoms of the real, underlying issue.

That lack of sales?

It’s often because the owner hasn’t done deeper marketing work. The deeper work of understanding their target market and crafting a compelling offer. As a result, the sales person shows up to the sale uninformed and unprepared. They’ve been set up to fail.

Problems with employees?

Often, those problems grow out of a failure to define a position. Or to connect the company’s vision and values to its hiring and employee development.

Customer service issues?

No thoughtful development of procedures to match delivery to customer needs and expectations.

If those underlying issues aren’t addressed, the problems will never be solved. The fundamental responsibility every owner faces is to focus on the basic, systemic workings of the business. If they stay on the surface, they will always be playing whack-a-mole.

So, how do you address the underlying issue? How do you even know where to look?

Get below the surface

One of the best approaches to this was developed by Toyota. It’s usually called the ‘5 whys’. The name describes the process…

When faced with a problem, ask why 5 times to get to the root cause of the problem. Here’s an example.

Problem: We don’t close enough sales.

Why? Because people think our product is too expensive.

Why? Because they think it’s a lot to spend for something that doesn’t completely solve their problem.

Why? It’s missing a key feature that is important to buyers.

Why? The engineers weren’t told to include it when they built the product.

Why? We didn’t know it was important to the target market.

After 5 whys, we’re getting somewhere.

What started out as a sales problem turned out to be a lack of understanding what the market wants. That begs the question, “If we didn’t know that, what else don’t we know about the market?”

The solution: Get a better understanding of what the target market needs. Use that to inform product development, marketing, and sales.

Fixing underlying issues usually fixes several things throughout the organization. Even things you haven’t yet figured out were broken!

This is a simple, but powerful approach. Here’s a tip to make it work even better.

Don’t play the blame game

When asking why, look for a process-focused answer.

For example, let’s say your problem is inventory piles up someplace it shouldn’t be. When you ask why, an answer like “Becuase Chuck is lazy” usually isn’t helpful.

In some cases, that might be true (and might be the cause of the problem). But, most of the time, its a process-problem, not a people problem. Look first for an answer like “There is no designated area for that inventory.”

Your turn

So, the next time you’re pulling your hair out over a problem that just won’t go away. Consider that you’re playing whack-a-mole with your solutions. Stop. Look deeper.

Give the 5 whys a try.

Having a hard time with it? Get in touch. I can help.


  1. Ed, thanks a million for this post. I feel like you’re talking directly to my situation. I appreciate your advice to dig until I find a problem that I can actually address.

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