Our solutions are only as good as our understanding of the problem. There’s a good question we can use to help discover a problem’s roots. And we can turn it into an even better question by employing it liberally — more liberally than most of us naturally do.
Legendary Toyota executive Taiichi Ohno wanted employees to explore problems deeply through persistent inquiry before starting to solve them.
He would advise, “Ask why five times about every matter.” It might sound like this if you worked for Ohno at Toyota:
- Why did the robot stop? The circuit has overloaded, causing a fuse to blow.
- Why is the circuit overloaded? There was insufficient lubrication on the bearings, so they locked up.
- Why was there insufficient lubrication on the bearings? The oil pump on the robot is not circulating sufficient oil.
- Why is the pump not circulating sufficient oil? The pump intake is clogged with metal shavings.
- Why is the intake clogged with metal shavings? Because there is no filter on the pump.
I am much in love with Ohno’s phrase, “persistent inquiry.” It conveys the tenacity of the terrier combined with the curiosity of the cat, a winning combo when it comes to problem solving.
It’s not insensitive, drill sergeant persistence, mind you. It’s “hmmm, that’s interesting” persistence, the kind we have when we’re walking along the beach and see something interesting sticking partially out of the sand. We kneel down and dig because our curiosity simply demands it.
Keep this in mind, too: You must listen to the answer, because the next why is born out of that answer. Don’t run ahead in your mind, thinking you know what they’re going to say.
Here’s what Ohno’s five whys it might sound like when put to use with person-to-person problems.
I overheard the following exchange while checking in to a hotel recently. A manager was talking with an employee in a little room behind the front desk area.
The manager stopped after the answer to question 2 and simply instructed the employee to work things out with Samuel. Maybe that did it, I don’t know.
But as I headed down the hallway with my room key, I found myself imagining what more persistent inquiry might have discovered. Maybe it would have gone something like this:
- I’ve heard that you and Samuel aren’t talking. Why is that? Because we got into an argument at the copier.
- Why did you get into an argument at the copier? Because, as usual, he thought his time was more important than mine and I’m sick of it.
- Why are you sick of it? Because he always treats me that way and it’s not fair.
- Why does he always treat you that way? Well, because he’s selfish. And I haven’t been able to put a stop to it.
- Why haven’t you been able to put a stop to it? Because I don’t like confrontation, ok?
If we’d stopped at #2, as the hotel manager did, our “efficiency” might have turned out pretty darn inefficient in the long run. An employee who dislikes confrontation might well not resolve the problem with Samuel, but choose instead to try to avoid further exchanges. Might work. Might lead to more escalated conflict.
The following is my reconstructed conversation from a phone call a few weeks ago. A team leader inquired about my availability to do team-building with her group. Since I don’t really offer team-building activities in my suite of services, I like to check out requests like these carefully:
- Why do you want team-building activities? The team has had a difficult year and I think they’ll benefit from activities that remind them how to work well together.
- Why has the team had a difficult year? Because a few changes in the team led to some difficult dynamics.
- Why are there difficult dynamics? Well, mostly because three team members are at odds with each other and now it’s begun to permeate the entire group.
- Why is it permeating the entire group? Because we haven’t been able to resolve the conflict between the three team members and the tension is always in the air now.
- Why haven’t those three been able to resolve the conflict between them? Probably because we haven’t discovered the right approach yet.
- Why do you think team-building activities will be the right approach? Because we thought they’d benefit from reminders about how to work well together as a team.
- I ask this with all kindness: It’s clear you’ve put a lot of thought into the situation. You know your folks and I don’t. If there’s such tension in the air between them that it’s affecting others on the team, why do you think that reminders alone will cause the conflict to go away? Well, I hadn’t thought about it in those terms. What are our other options?
Yes, sometimes it’s seven whys, not five. It’s whatever it takes to dig down to the roots. Maybe the rule of thumb should be: