I was having a good ol’ natter with my 4 year old niece recently and her curiosity of what I was doing ended up in the classic “infinite why” loop:
Niece: What are you doing?
Me : Ironing my clothes
Me: Because they are creased up?
Me: I just washed them
Me: Because they were dirty
Me: I spilled juice on it
This constant barrage of Whys from kids are not uncommon, but many are either told to stop asking Why or generally ignored; and these kids eventually stop. When these kids grow up into young adults, the fear of being laughed at by others for not knowing why, further stops them from being inquisitive.
For a long time, I too stopped asking why. I took a lot of things at face value, not really understanding why I was asked to do something or why things worked they way did. I missed so many opportunities to do things in a better way because I followed a pattern of the world designed by someone else who probably did not ask the question why either. If I had known why, I could have used my own expertise and skills to devise a better solution to achieve the same outcome.
People are told to identify and focus on their life purpose, even businesses have well defined visions; these are essentially “Big Picture Whys”. But we forget to ask why for all the little things that we do in our lives everyday, what I would coin as the “Daily Whys”.
A real life example would be me submitting my electricity meter readings to my energy supplier.
– Why do I supply these readings? So that the energy company has the most upto date readings
– Why do they need the most up to date readings? So that the bills they produce for me will be accurate
There is clearly an incentive for me to be billed accurately and me manually providing them with readings has a weakpoint ,i.e, “me”. So I looked at ways to automate this and came across smart meters that will provide the energy company with up to date readings without my manual intervention, it also has the added benefit of showing me exactly how I am consuming energy on an hourly basis. I have therefore improved the process by questioning it and finding an incentive to make it better.
Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota industries (and father of the founder of Toyota automobile) is credited with the 5 Why technique which is used in root-cause analysis in numerous sectors. Like my niece, toddlers are pre-programmed with this technique and use it to get a better understanding of the world. The key concept is that by asking why atleast 5 times, you can generally get to the true root cause/reason of something. The technique has seen widespread use beyond Toyota, and is now used within Kaizen, lean manufacturing and Six Sigma. A manager of mine used to drill in to my proposals by asking Why for every response I gave, didn’t really understand at the time what he was doing but it made me better at reframing my proposals to ensure that it answered all the Whys.
The key actionable insights from this blog post are:
- Start asking Daily Whys, use it to identify the reason behind things that you have just taken for granted.
- Make use of the 5 Why technique to get to the true root reason for something
- Please do not tell children to stop asking why!