Kids are good at asking “why.” And as you’ve probably experienced, sometimes they aren’t content with the first answer. Each answer you provide triggers another “why.”
Taiichi Ohno, pioneer of the Toyota Production System in the ‘50s, was also fond of asking “why.” “Ask ‘why’ five times about every matter,” he advised his staff.1 Why these instructions? Because doing so was an efficient way of getting to the root cause of any problem they encountered.
If a robot in the factory stopped, for instance, they would ask why. Perhaps they would find out one of its circuits was overloaded. But that wouldn’t be the end. They would then ask why again, trying to determine why the circuit was overloaded. And if they discovered it was because of insufficient lubrication on its bearing, they would ask why again. And they would eventually uncover the root cause of the issue, perhaps a missing filter somewhere down the line.
This repeated use of the question, “why,” has become known as the “Five Whys” technique. It’s been used in the manufacturing world but provides value beyond just that context, whether at work or elsewhere in life.
For instance, take a project at work that’s having problems. You start with the question: Why did that project go awry? And the answer: Because the client was terrible. But instead of stopping there, you continue. And why was the client terrible? Because they had unrealistic expectations. And why did they have unrealistic expectations? Because we didn’t communicate proper expectations up front. And why didn’t we communicate…? and so forth.
By continuing to ask “why,” you may soon uncover the root issues to address instead of dealing only with the symptoms. The initial answers may be easy enough. But the valuable part is continuing to ask why with each successive answer. And after a few times, you end up with a better understanding of what’s really going on.
Now, you may not need to ask “why” exactly five times to get to the bottom of what’s in front of you. But learning to ask it more than once is a good place to start.