Keep Asking Why

Peel away the excuses until you get to the reason.

by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)
by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)

Our daughter’s favorite word is chocolate. (Or maybe iwannawatchteevee.) But close behind it is why.

You know this phase. The inquisitiveness. The insatiable curiosity. The realization that there are reasons behind what we do, and trying to understand how all the pieces fit together—including motive.

Then at some point, we stop asking why. We stop questioning. We stop looking for the understanding that will give us greater insight into what’s going on around us. That insight leads to influence.

Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota, developed what he called Five Whys. It was an iterative question-asking technique used to get to the root cause of a problem. Start with the problem, and keep asking why it happened. Three-year-olds intuitively understand it.

Consider an example from a time my trusted system failed me:

  1. Problem statement: The rent check was late.
  2. Why didn’t you pay rent on time? My trusted system didn’t remind me to pay April’s rent.
  3. Why didn’t it remind you? I had already marked the reminder to pay April’s rent as completed.
  4. Why did you mark it as completed? I saw an active task to pay rent on March 3, thought it was the reminder to pay the rent for March, and checked it off.
  5. Why did you think it was the March reminder? I can’t tell the difference between reminders.
  6. Why can’t you tell the difference? The title of a repeating task is always the same.

Now we’re getting to the root cause. Rent wasn’t late because OmniFocus didn’t remind me. Rent was late because I got confused and acknowledged OmniFocus’s reminder 27 days early. (The solution was to use AppleScript to automatically create a new task each month that has the month’s name in the task.)

There’s nothing magical about the number five here. Toyoda’s team found that it was sometimes more, sometimes less, but they usually got to the heart of the matter around the fifth question. The point is to keep asking.

Don’t settle for the first answer that comes to mind. Peel back the onion. Keep asking until you understand what happened and how it came about. Keep asking until you have something you can act on, something you can change.

A problem can have multiple root causes. An answer at any level can take you in multiple directions. (“I hit him because he made me mad” yields at least “why did he make you mad?” and “why did you choose to hit him as a response?” Both would be interesting.) Be careful not to restrict yourself to a single line of inquiry, even though you may only select a single root cause for follow-up.

Continually asking why isn’t only for middle managers looking to conduct a post-mortem on a failure. As any three-year-old knows, it’s also a great way to increase your understanding of the world around you.

Question: What questions do you ask? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.