Solve Problems By Asking “Why?”

Have you ever been the target of a young kid who incessantly asked “why?” I remember when my own kids were in this phase. Sometimes the conversation would go on and on until I was exasperated! This single-minded curiosity is acceptable for small children because we understand that he or she is developing and trying to understand the world around them.

However, as we get older, it seems that the “why” question becomes less common. While it’s tempting to think that this is because we have less to ask “why” about, it’s more likely that we’re afraid to look silly or we’re too proud to admit that we don’t know an answer. Whatever the reason behind our hesitance, we miss out on an opportunity to make things better.

The benefits of asking “why” can be tremendous if we are willing to ask and answer the question honestly.

The founder of Toyota Industries, Sakichi Toyoda, understood the power of this question. In the early 1900s, he developed the Five Whys technique to determine the root cause of a problem and implement countermeasures for prevention. Now almost a century later, this technique continues to be used by countless organizations around the world. It goes like this:

  1. Gather a cross-functional team of people that are familiar with the problem but also include those that can serve as a “fresh set of eyes.” Often a different perspective is needed. Designate one person to lead the exercise or bring in a facilitator.
  2. Clearly define the problem and condense it down to a single sentence. Take your time here so that it is specific.
  3. Ask “why” five times or as many times as necessary. Be careful not to settle on ambiguous answers or answers not founded on factual information. If multiple causes are determined, then branch them out and work on each branch independently.
  4. When you reach the root cause, identify countermeasures that will prevent the problem from happening again. This step takes guts. Don’t let the team take the easy way out. Statements like, “oh he just had a bad day” or “we’ll just remind the sales team of the error” will only allow history to repeat itself. Focus on the process not the people.
  5. Assign responsibility and follow through on the corrective action steps taken.

Now it’s your turn. Think of a problem that exists in your organization today. It could be an issue in the office, engineering department, shop floor or a customer complaint. Try using the Five Whys technique with your team.

I’ll warn you that this exercise can go against the grain for people that are either involved in the problem or very close to it. It takes patience because the natural tendency is to assume that the root cause is already known when it is not. As a result, problems often go unresolved and rear their ugly heads again and again. 

Recently we worked through a problem with a manufacturing client using the Five Whys method. The effect of the problem was far reaching, sometimes going undetected until their product was installed at the customer’s site. Our client’s team was highly engaged and had an attitude that was very supportive of continuous improvement so it made the process much easier. In the end, we identified the root cause and implemented specific corrective actions – none of which were complicated or difficult to do.

Like the kid that keeps asking why, leaders can benefit by doing the same with their team – not to exasperate them, but to improve the process and build a culture where everyone contributes to eliminating waste. Using the Five Whys method is one way to help us all look at a problem without jumping to conclusions. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “To succeed, jump as quickly at opportunities as you do at conclusions.”