One Question to Create Understanding and Start Solving Problems
A simple, easy-to-remember technique to create clarity and get things moving forward.
There is real power in asking why. In it’s essence, the question is about curiosity, clarity, and understanding. And even though it seems like asking “why?” once would be sufficient to figure out the reason something happened, the reality is most decisions people make are based on a slew of assumptions and unexplored beliefs they aren’t consciously aware of. Instead, asking “why?” five times is a powerful, proven technique, originally developed in the 1950s at Toyota, for uncovering the root issue that is creating the symptomatic problems you are facing.
The Power of “5 Whys”
Here’s an example based on a real situation. A company was putting on a live-streaming event to update partners and provide details on product updates. Just before the event started, the technical team realized that the video stream would not work on iPhones, which a majority of potential viewers for this particular event would be using. Here is how the “5 whys” could have been used afterwards, to uncover what happened in a conversation with the event producer:
- Why didn’t the video feed work on iPhones? We didn’t know it wasn’t working until 20-minutes before the event started.
- Why didn’t you know until 20-minutes beforehand? Because we didn’t start testing it until an hour before the event.
- Why wasn’t it tested until an hour before the event? I asked the developer to test it the day before, but did not follow up until I got to the office this morning.
- Why did you wait until this morning to follow up? Because I thought the developer would do it and I didn’t want to seem like I was micromanaging.
- Why didn’t you want to seem like you were micromanaging? I was afraid of asking too many questions since I don’t know how the developers go through the process for testing. I felt like I should have already known and was afraid to ask.
Core problem: The event producer was afraid of asking questions, taking responsibility, and doing everything within his power to ensure the video feed would work.
Without digging deeper, we could have assumed the problem was simply not enough testing (true), an untrustworthy developer (maybe), or poor communication (true). But testing the assumptions made in each response by asking “why?,” we get to the core problem and see how it triggered the other problems. There is plenty of opportunity for improvement in this situation, but the larger issue is the event producer’s sense that he shouldn’t ask questions, which led to not taking full responsibility for the success of the event.
There was also a moment where it would have been to veer off and assign blame on the developer after the fourth question/answer (why the developer didn’t test things the night before). The developer probably has a conversation with his own “5 whys” coming his way, but redirecting the original conversation at that point would have stopped short of identifying the producer’s core problem and clarifying how he didn’t take full responsibility and control in this situation.
“The root cause of any problem is the key to a lasting solution.” — Taiichi Ohno, Toyota
Reality is Always Your Friend
A few closing thoughts on the benefits of getting curious and asking “why?” and how the process can get short-circuited.
- Asking “why?” should always be about creating clarity. It’s not about catching someone, proving a point, or finding someone to blame. Clarity creates opportunity to learn, understand, and improve.
- Asking “why?” is an act of courage. It’s much harder to search for the root cause of a problem than to take the shortcut and blame someone or something that satisfies a primal urge to protect yourself. Be thankful for and reward those who are willing to take a chance on courage and learning.
- Blame isn’t helpful. It’s a discharge of frustration or pain. It distracts from the actual root cause of a problem. Sure, blame is easier. When something breaks or falls short of expectations, we quickly rely on assigning (or shifting) blame in order to get back to feeling safe. But it doesn’t actually solve the problem.
- Blame does not prevent future failure. You can blame a team member for a failure and fire them, or take away all responsibility, thus eliminating the possibility that particular person can make the same mistake twice. But what if the problem wasn’t that person? What if, instead, they received bad training or they weren’t given the resources they needed to succeed? What if the culture promoted the idea that being hard and unforgiving was more important than learning from mistakes? What if it was a bad hire, which actually puts the responsibility on the person who did the hiring? The best medicine cures the disease rather than settling for alleviated symptoms.
- People need to feel safe in order to take the risk. When you starting digging in with “why?” questions, you will likely start uncovering assumptions and beliefs that individuals may not even be aware they are operating out of. It is really important to help people understand that this is a safe conversation focused on understanding and clarity. Especially if the culture hasn’t supported this kind of authentic, curious approach to problem solving.
Start practicing: Look for a chance to practice the “5 whys” today, even if it’s just on your own. Think of a decision or conversation that backfired, or a project that failed and didn’t go the way you expected it to. Get curious, ask why, uncover the assumptions and beliefs, resist blame, and see what you can learn.