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Gimbal's Tip of the Week

The Lean Law Firm Blog

E218: Could this 3-letter word help you improve your law practice?

process improvement Jan 31, 2024
A hand holds up a post-it note that says 'WHY?' on it.

Welcome back to our series on the Practice Accelerator framework based on DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control), a structured approach to process improvement. 

At this stage, you’ve identified what your client wants or needs (Define) and developed a really clear picture of your baseline or current state (Measure). You’ve spotted the wastes and identified some issues in the way you accomplish your work. Every place where you find waste, every frustration you and your team identifies…each one is an opportunity for improvement. Now it’s time to analyze why you work the way you do, so you can act on those improvement opportunities.

Your Tip: In the Analyze phase, you need to look for root causes of your process problems, so you can eliminate them at the source. 

It’s time to start asking questions: 

  • What’s causing that delay, or that bottleneck, or that recurring problem?
  • Why do you do a particular wasteful step or activity? Is it just because you’ve always done it that way?
  • What would happen if you didn’t do it?

It’s tempting to stop with the first answer you get, and then focus on solving what you’ve found immediately. But you might be addressing a symptom of the real problem. It’s a bit like treating a fever, rather than figuring out what’s causing it. If you don't treat the underlying problem, you may find that fever comes back again and again. 

The Five Why Technique

We use a really easy tool to help our clients get to that root cause: 5-Whys. The 5-Why technique will help you find the real source of your problem, just by asking “Why?” 

The key is that you have to keep asking until you don’t have any more answers. It may take three “whys” or it may take six. Five is just a guideline. The point is, you need to dig deeper and get past the simple surface explanation. You need to get to the heart of the issue.

Here’s an illustration that helps break down this technique: Your firm’s lawyers are regularly filing clients’ personal injury claims at the very last minute, although the filings should be pretty routine. The lawyers are frustrated and blame the clients for the last-minute rush. But the practice group leader thinks it’s because the lawyers are not managing their workload properly. 

When we apply the 5-Why question and answer technique it leads to an entirely different understanding of the problem. Now we ask

  1. Why do our lawyers regularly file clients’ accident claims at the last minute? Because they receive personal injury assessment questionnaires back from clients so late
  2. Why does it take the clients so long? Because clients put off completing the questionnaire despite the incentive of getting compensation for their injuries
  3. Why do the clients procrastinate? Because they need to print the questionnaire, fill it out, and then send it back. Also, it’s really long.
  4. Why is the form like that? Because our clerk set it up it that way when we first created the form.
  5. Why? Because we thought all of the information being requested was absolutely required to facilitate our assessment and filing of the injury claim…. Actually, it’s not, but we never got around to rewriting the form. And also, back then, we didn’t have the ability to create fillable PDF forms that can be returned in a single click.

Result: So what started as a problem caused by lawyers mismanaging their workloads, or possibly by clients procrastinating, turned out to be a problem caused by a cumbersome form that was hard to complete and hard to return. Knowing this, you can now focus on the form when you move onto the Improve phase of DMAIC.

If you’d stopped at the first answer—that lawyers weren’t managing their workloads properly—you’d focus your efforts on the wrong issues. The lawyers would have told you they couldn’t do anything about it, because their schedules were unpredictable and their clients were procrastinating. By delving deeper, you arrived at an issue that, if you address it properly in the Improve phase of DMAIC, will result in correcting the underlying problem, and not just the symptoms.

Bonus Tip: Careful analysis is critical. Treating the signs and symptoms of waste, rather than spending the time to figure out and attack the root causes is a losing proposition. It is, in itself, a waste.

The 5-Whys approach is easy to teach and easy to use, so you can pass the method on quickly within your team. Encourage everyone to dig deeper. When someone gives you an answer, ask “Why?” And keep asking why until you get to the root cause.

If you want to apply DMAIC to increase the efficiency of your law practice, let us know! We’re passionate about helping you build a law firm you love and offer a free strategy call to get you started. 

P.S. We’ve got a new webinar coming up that is sure to help you in expanding your marketing! Join us for Grow Your Practice: Crafting a Magnetic Marketing Message on February 15. We’re sharing the best law firm marketing strategies for small firms and solo firms, you won’t want to miss it. Register here! 

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