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What’s the purpose?

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It sounds defying and somewhat rude, but it is a key question that should precede all our actions, projects and other endeavors: “What’s the purpose?”

Before I develop this point, let me tell you a little (true) story: once upon a time, when I was a young boy, I was requested by my mother to come to the kitchen and help out to chop up the onions needed for preparing the Christmas Eve dinner. Let it be known: mine is a big, crazy family (typically Mexican); therefore many onions where required. “They should be finely chopped,” she said. “Why, what are you doing with them?” I replied. The look on her face disapproved of the young boy challenging his mother. So I shut up and proceeded with the task.

After what seemed like hours, I finished chopping the 20 or so onions. I wiped the tears from my eyes (remember, these were onions) and I proudly gave the result of my hard work to mom.

Astonishment, disappointment, shock, and trauma are words that fall short of describing what I felt when she took the chopped onions and put them in the blender with something else and swiiiiiiish! We had salsa! Yes, we have salsa even for Christmas dinner. My hard work was all for nothing! If I had known about the salsa intentions, I could have just cut those onions in halves, throw them in the blender and have the same result!

Several years after this experience, when I started working at Toyota, my mentor suggested I always questioned my manager concerning the purpose for every task assigned to me. My manager did not seem the least surprised by my direct question: what’s the purpose of this? In fact, he was delighted, I was learning one of the main drivers of the company: “Always confirm the purpose of your work”. In Toyota, everyone is encouraged to pose the question for anything, even when a Vice-president is presenting you his latest brain-child project. The fact is this: you are able to focus on your task and give better results when you can link it to a higher objective.

This sense of purpose as a driver of efficiency can be applied at all levels with immediate consequences, as long as no one is afraid to ask the question and react accordingly: What is the purpose of this task, meeting, project, department, division, company…?

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