Problem solving and asking “why?” five times


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To get to root cause of any problem requires probing; you have to ask the right questions. And the most important question to ask, “is why?” And it’s not enough to ask this question once; you have ask it over and over. Asking “why?” leads to new insights that help solve problems. Asking “why?” can also evoke strong reactions from those questioned, along with an occasional defensiveness and hostility. But the question still needs to be asked.

Notwithstanding their current problems, Toyota has been the leader over the past thirty years in the development of this type of thinking. They rose to the top of the auto industry in part, by their emphasis on this type of tireless probing. In his book on the Toyota production system, Taiichi Ohno introduced the practice of ‘the five whys’. The process of asking ‘why’ (at least) five times allowed Toyota to discover root causes and solve many of the problems faced by their competitors – competitors who didn’t have the same discipline and thus, were unable to solve similar problems. It remains a huge competitive advantage for Toyota. Here’s a simple example that highlights this technique to probe why a machine stopped functioning.

1. Why did the machine stop functioning?
Answer: There was an overload, and the fuse blew.

2. Why was there an overload?
Answer: Because the bearing was not lubricated properly.

3. Why was the lubrication not sufficient?
Answer: Because the lubrication pump was not pumping sufficiently.

4. Why was it not pumping sufficiently?
Answer: Because the pump shaft was worn, and it was rattling.

5. Why was the shaft worn out?
Answer: Because there was no strainer attached, and this caused metal scrap to get in.

Five questions were required to find the solution; to have stopped anywhere in the process would have ensured that the root cause would never have been found. Most others would have simply replaced the fuse; a small minority would have focused on the lubrication system. Only Toyota would have discovered that the solution required the addition of just a simple strainer.

But under the heading of ‘easier said than done’, this type of probing is not easy. According to Jonathan Isaacs of the Boston Consulting Group:

…to pursue such probing takes a special, strongly motivated person… Asking why five times is easy to say but hard to do. It challenges people’s knowledge and even self-respect. It can call into question their diligence and the basis of their expertise. It requires fresh thinking on all sides. Yet’ it’s so basic to learning, to seeing new things from the familiar.”

Here’s the takeaway: As Issacs so eloquently puts it, “asking why can raise questions that are fundamental, but not necessarily answerable through rigorous analysis itself. There are the basic questions of leadership and common sense. They are the search for the point.” Does your organization have the strength of leadership to ask these types of tough questions? It’s better to find out sooner rather than later.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that yesterday (Monday April 11), SmartBrief for Leadership picked up our Innovation and the importance of critical thinking post and sent it out to their (much larger) reader. base. In just a single day, we saw Intrepid ideas traffic spike to over 2,000 readers; our blog email subscriber base increased over 25%, and we added 50 new SpruanceQuarterly subscribers–again, all in a single day. All I can say is “WOW…thanks to SmartBrief for running our essay and we welcome our new readers and subscribers!”

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Patrick Lefler
Patrick Lefler is the founder of The Spruance Group -- a management consultancy that helps growing companies grow faster by providing unique value at the product level: specifically product marketing, pricing, and innovation. He is a former Marine Corps officer; a graduate of both Annapolis and The Wharton School, and has over twenty years of industry expertise.


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