Simon Sinek was right when he said you should start with why. He was of course talking about how great leaders inspire action. However, you’ve probably heard this ‘start with why’ approach before or the 5-Whys process.
I am a big believer in the 5-Whys process. The 5-Whys have withstood the test of time as a successful process for removing inefficiencies and inspiring major change in hundreds of companies around the world. The basic tenets behind this process have been around for centuries. Consider this ancient proverb that takes the form of a 5-Why analysis, a variation of which Benjamin Franklin once quoted:
“For want of a nail, a shoe was lost,
for want of a shoe, a horse was lost,
for want of a horse, a knight was lost,
for want of a knight, a battle was lost,
for want of a battle, the kingdom was lost,
and all for the want of a little horseshoe nail.”
In this scenario, the impact of a seemingly innocuous event transcends far beyond itself. The same thing happens in companies all the time. Companies are often afraid of change because the amount of work required to achieve that change seems unattainable. Five-Whys helps simplify the change process. Rather than look at all problems together at once, this approach takes one problem on at a time to explore the cause and effect relationship of why it became a problem in the first place. After you identify the problem, you ask yourself five questions, or five whys, to try and get to the root cause of the issue. So you begin with your problem:
Problem: factory operations have ground to a halt.
- Why? The conveyor belts transporting goods inside the factory have stopped working.
- Why? The engine running the conveyor belts broke down.
- Why? The wiring in the engine was frayed.
- Why? The wiring was old and needed to be replaced sooner.
- Why? The engine was not properly maintained on its usual maintenance schedule.
Keeping this process short helps avoid conflict and get to the bottom of the concern as quickly as possible. Using five quick questions in this example, the solution or root cause to the initial problem was found. Keeping the engine for the conveyor belt on its normal maintenance schedule solves this problem from occurring in the future and saves inefficiencies. Having the engine running constantly keeps the factory running at its optimal performance. It is hard enough to keep a business successful when everything is going well. You do not have time to waste with inefficiencies in the physical process.
Five Whys is effective because it is simple and can often help you get to the bottom of a problem. The simplicity is part of its genius. It is easy to learn, easy to teach, easy to understand, and easy to use. Companies are naturally complex, so the challenges they face can be complex as well. The 5 Whys helps break these problems down into manageable sections. And, while 5 Whys is designed to identify process errors, it can also be applied to business strategy as well. Its versatility and functionality make it a fantastic tool that can be applied to both process and strategy.
The Audacious How
While the 5 Whys process is extremely useful, it is all too often that people ask the why, or worse yet, the why not question, without asking the how. Either way, they get an answer. Why they cannot lose weight, why they cannot get ahead in their company. This attitude may identify the problem, but it does not provide an effective solution. Substituting or adding the how to the why makes the answers and solutions become powerful.
If I were to ask how to ship 5 percent more Danby wine coolers, the typical answer is that we need to work harder doing the same job the same way it has always been done. This does not create radical or effective change. You need to work smarter, not harder. If we ask, how can we sell 50 percent more Danby wine coolers than we already do, our mind automatically figures that we need to do something vastly different than what we have been doing. By doing so, you can come up with more creative solutions that will inspire sincere change. If more people thought in this way, I daresay that more people would consider the longer-term success of their company.
The importance of continuous learning cannot be understated. In order to facilitate the learning process you want to draw upon a multitude of diverse perspectives. Asking how is a great way to create this narrative that you are looking for. Finding the root cause of something is a solid first step. This requires you to describe the atmosphere that caused an event to take place. This also gives you a rich set of operational data to work from.
Simply asking why can point to human error without going beyond this. Human error is the starting point, not the conclusion. It is entirely possible, if not probable, that employees did not choose to be ineffective. Solving issues in the process provides employees with every opportunity to succeed. Once any possible process barriers are removed, human error is no longer an excuse.
Asking how gives us a narrative to use, with a defined start point and a prospective endpoint. 5 Whys describes the way that things are by indicating both process and human error. Simply saying, “the engine broke, the wiring was frayed, and the maintenance schedule needs to be tightened” is not providing the entire story here.
5 Whys and a How expands this series of questioning by putting in place measures and solutions for future improvement down the line. First you will describe what happened. Then you will explain how to eliminate the issue using statistics and problem solving methods. If you want to be successful you cannot ignore the complexities that a company faces. A company improves once it embraces complexity as it grows.
When I ask my How questions, often the answer does not come to me immediately. Often it comes when I am not thinking of it. What I have done by asking the question is to plant the seed and my unconscious mind goes about solving it. My mind also becomes more aware and open to solutions.
I am careful not to get stuck in the over analysis of the Why. Why is important – so I can learn from things but I try not to dwell on it. If I ask Why we cannot sell more Danby compact refrigerators – I will find an answer and start believing it. If I ask How can we sell more Danby compact refrigerators – I will also get an answer but in this case it will be a useful one.
I find I am more successful if I ask the right questions.
Also be sure to read ‘Agile Human-Centric Design: What Is It and Why You Need to Know‘