When I was a kid in school, I used to always be eager to be the first one to answer the teacher’s questions. Then, I thought it to be a measure of smartness. After my internship at BCG last summer, that changed.

Professional Services Firms (PSFs) function in the information/knowledge industry to provide services to their clients. A particularly acute problem that these firms face  while working, is information asymmetry, wherein the client knows more about the condition of his business than PSFs do. Hence, when a consulting firm is approached by a client to solve his/her problem, the first step is to extract information from the client.

There are hordes of problems to this – the POC from the client firm is too rude, or too busy or just doesn’t want to collaborate. This can be very unnerving, even to the calmest of people. A lot many times, I was even swamped with conflicting data from the same source. As I waded through these rough waters, I realised there is only one solution to this: Ask questions.

And you might need to ask all sorts of questions – the basic being Why? Toyota Production System employs this famous technique called 5-Whys, which enable its managers to find the root of any problem. One of many such conversations I had during the internship:

Production Head (PH): We won’t be able to match targets for a few days.

Me: Why?

PH: The boiler won’t be able to perform the reaction as fast as it can.

Me: Why?

PH: The valve gear is damaged.

Me: Can’t we replace it with one from our non-functioning boilers?

PH: Yes, but it will take one day to transfer it.

Me: But it will save the production for the next few days after tomorrow. Let’s give it a shot!

Looks simple? It is, but surprisingly, very few people employ this technique. While this belonged to just a basic cadre of questions, I learnt that most of the skill here is in listening intently to what the client is saying and asking smart follow-up questions, that enable you to go one level deeper in the information chain while also verifying your previously collected data.

This realisation was quite amusing but as I got on to this technique, I understood how difficult it actually is to ask the right questions, to process the colossal data at disposal, sift through it and connect it to find gaping holes in it. Consulting isn’t rocket science, but like any science, the frontiers of knowledge are pushed only by asking the right questions.