Five Times Why


By:  Jim Gray

If you have children, you will remember that they go through a very inquisitive stage, asking the same question over and over and over again, “Why?”

It would seem that as we grow up, we lose our inquisitiveness, at least to a degree, and we stop asking why. We begin to accept things the way they are, without investigating to see if there is a better way to do things.

In our rapidly changing world, the people who challenge the way things are frequently become the innovators who lead us into the future.

The Japanese use a technique to challenge all business processes. They believe in asking why five times. At least five times. 

They believe that by challenging existing reasons and digging for answers, you can reveal the real reason something is done in a certain way. You can then decide if the process is still valid, or if making a change will improve that process.

Companies in this country that pursue a goal of Total Quality Management (TQM) have learned this technique. The example that was presented to most of us to illustrate the technique is to ask why five times regarding the width of rails of American trains.

The rails of trains in this country are 48 ½“ apart. 

Why?  The US copied the British standard.

Why did the British use this standard?  The British copied their tramways, which existed before the railroads.

Why did the trams use this standard?  The trams used the same forms that were used for horse drawn wagons and carts.

Why did carts and wagons use this standard?  The wagons and carts used wheel ruts left on old roads built by the Romans for their chariots.

Why did the Romans use this standard?  It turns out that when you put two horses side by side, 48 ½ “ is the optimum wheel spacing to keep the chariot stable, and keep the horses from bumping into each other.

So, American trains are made the way they are because of two horse’s behinds!

American managers also find this technique valuable in digging down to the root cause of people problems and conflicts. Asking why five times when confronted with a problem involving people generally cascades down this sort of course:

  • Blame

  • Excuse

  • Symptom

  • Cause

  • Root cause

When confronted with a “people” issue, being calm and gentle becomes a key skill. Try asking, “Help me understand what happened,” instead of “What happened here?”

We live in an age where most managers try to resolve problems quickly, and challenge their processes in order to become more efficient; both in dealing with people and with tasks. As you dig down to make improvements, ask why enough times so you know you are dealing with a real issue, and not a phantom.

By: Jim Gray

© 2015 Alliance Training and Consulting, Inc.



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