Why Ask Why?

If you ever need a refresher course on investigative persistence just tell a toddler “no” when they really want something. While most adults are able to accept no for an answer, a toddler sees this as an opportunity for discussion and to find the real reason they were told no. How do they do this? Well quite simple actually, they ask why and they don’t stop asking why until they get to the root cause.

In the 1970’s, Toyota made the 5 Why Strategy popular by making it a part of their Toyota Production System (should be noted that toddlers have been using it since the dawn of time). Since then, it has spread quickly to become one of the most popular problem-solving techniques used, helping organizations everywhere to get to the root cause of problems.

The basis for Toyota’s scientific approach … by repeating why five times, the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear.

-Taiichi Ohno

Ask WhyThe repetition of continuing to ask why is a question asking technique that explores cause and effect relationships that are underlying a particular problem. The number five is more of an average than a specific goal when you are attempting to find the root cause. In fact, it may only take a couple whys. Then again, it could take a dozen whys. The point is, you don’t stop until you get to the base of the problem and a method to solve it, no matter how many times you have to ask why.

More times than not, when you ask why you don’t get a dead end answer. Instead. you get a open ended answer that prompts your next why question and so on.

Benefits of Asking Why:

  • Finds the root cause of a problem in a strategic manner
  • Separates individual causes into their specific role in the problem
  • Very simple and easy to implement
  • You don’t need statistical analysis to have success using it

The 5 why strategy has been widely implemented in Lean and Six Sigma organizations, but is helpful in all types of day-to-day business life. Anytime problems involve human factors or interactions, asking why is the best place to start your problem solving efforts.

The important thing to remember when asking why is not to get caught up in assumptions or logical traps that end the question asking process. Always encourage staff to continue questioning and asking why until they have unfolded the true root cause.

The 5 Whys In Action

Here is a simple example of what can happen when you use the 5 Why technique to solve a problem.

Problem: You were late for work this morning.

  • Why were you late for work this morning?

– Because I had to take my child to school.

  • Why did you have to take your child to school?

– Because he missed the bus.

  • Why did he miss the bus?

– Because he overslept

  • Why did he oversleep?

-Because he stayed up late doing homework

  • Why did he stay up late doing homework?

-Because he didn’t do it when he got home from school.

  • Why did he not do it when he got home from school?

-Because he played a new video game he got instead.

We now know that the root cause of this “fictitious” person being late for work. His son played a new video game he recently received after school, instead of doing his homework. The clear answer to this person’s problem is to throw away the video game and put the child in boarding school. Or, they could implement restrictions on game play and ensure rules about video games and homework are being followed. Either way, asking why helped get to the root cause.

For this particular problem it took six whys to get to the root cause, but you can see the process in action. Even though this was a simple problem to solve, you can clearly see how the repetition of the why question helps to dig deeper into your situation and allows for the root cause to unveil itself quickly.

For more information on the 5 Why strategy, check out the Gemba Academy’s video on YouTube.

Additional Resources