It all started with a tweet I posted:
"Why" questions trigger feelings bypassing data input and thinking. #dontdothat
As this got retweeted, interesting questions started coming my way:
- What about the Five Whys?
- Do you have data?
- What is your context?
All good questions.
“Why questions” have the ability to both gather data and to probe for underlying thoughts and decisions that lead to action. Other interrogatives (what, when, where, how) provide a better way to gather data since they focus on physical items or actions.
So, when do why questions work well? How might why questions lead to unexpected results? What can we do about that?
Solving Problems: Toyota and the Five Whys
I was writing process-control code for a living when I first heard about the Five Whys. It made sense for finding a problem’s root cause. The example went something like this:
- Why did the line stop? Because the conveyor gear reduction box froze.
- Why did the gear reduction box freeze? Because it didn’t get lubricated during the last preventive maintenance.
- Why didn’t it get lubricated during the last maintenance? It’s a new piece of equipment and wasn’t on the preventive maintenance check list.
- Why didn’t it get added to the maintenance check list when it was installed? Because we don’t have a standard way of adding items to the check list.
- How can we create a standard way of adding items to the check list so this won’t happen again?
Asking why uncovers another layer of information that eventually leads to the problem’s root cause and allows us to craft a solution to (hopefully) prevent the problem. Since we’re starting with observable data, asking why works well here.
Gathering Data: Five-year-old Whys
Anyone who has spent time around children has probably experienced a period of incessant whys.
Why is the sky blue? Because air molecules scatter light from the sun.
Why do the air molecules scatter the light? Because they get in the way of the sun’s rays.
Why do they get in the way?
(And so on.)
Often, the question-and-answer process ends with “Because I said so, that’s why.”
Asking why provides children with new information, and data expands their knowledge, so why works well here—at least until “Because I said so.”
When Why Might Not Work Well
Your teammates, managers, and coworkers are neither mechanical processes, which don’t care if we talk about them, nor five-year-olds attempting to gather more information about their world. They come complete with experiences you don’t know about and ideas about how things should work. As such, your why questions may trigger in others an emotional response that catches you unaware. What might generate such a response?