Grandma’s Pot Roast

The reason it’s always important to start with “why.”


You may have heard the “Grandma’s Pot Roast” story where generations of women cut off the ends of the pot roast because “Grandma had always done it that way.” As it turns out, the reason had nothing to do with flavor, but everything to do with grandma’s pan being too small for the roast.


This is an excellent example of my least favorite response when I ask people why a process works the way it does: “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” A healthy business knows the value of questioning processes because they understand the cost and risks of ineffective or inefficient processes.  They not only contribute to failures, mistakes, missed opportunities, and ultimately lost profit, they also frustrate the people who perform them. Asking “why” challenges us to think about the task, the process it relates to, and ultimately its relationship to the rest of the organization. In essence, it helps prevent wasted pot roast.


Recently I worked with a client with a large volume of payroll errors and delays in sending files to the bank, which in turn incurred fines. To determine where the opportunities for improvement might lay, we mapped out their payroll process. It wasn’t a complicated exercise in learning flowchart symbols, but rather just a bit of white-boarding. By making the process into a picture, and asking some well-timed “whys,” they discovered several potential failure points and significant duplication of effort. When “that’s the way we’ve always done it” was no longer an option for answering questions, they learned the reasons behind the duplicated effort were due to a shortcoming in their previous software. In fact, the process didn’t make sense with the new software functionality or the people involved. By using the process map and knowing their system and people capabilities, we made some simple, but significant changes to the process. That simple exercise saved 1.5 days in payroll processing time, placed controls that eliminated late filing and saved an estimated $90,000 per year.


Following our well-publicized exercise, there was a grass roots culture change. People began to ask questions about their tasks. Why do I perform my task/process this way? Is this process efficient and effective? Does it make sense in relation to our systems, our people and our technology?  Is this the highest and best use of time? Does this process contribute to the overall success and goals of the organization?


One particular employee took our advice to heart and began questioning how the company tracked labor. Most employees were still using a paper timesheet, but a few had begun using electronic timekeeping. She discovered that the paper and electronic timesheets didn’t match, thereby exposing the organization to legal liability, as well as costing money. She recommended changes and helped spearhead implementation of electronic timekeeping throughout the company. The result? In addition to reduced risk and reduced payroll expense, they also realized a reduction in pay discrepancies. Another unexpected benefit was an employee with better skills who felt valued and engaged by her employer and advocated for process review.


Most people believe that process improvement is a luxury for large businesses with large departments committed to the task. But a simple approach — starting with “why”— may just help you find not only a way to get the whole roast in the pan, but also have room for potatoes and carrots.