Ask “Why” Five Times

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

The Toyota Way by Jeffrey LikerOne tactic of The Toyota Way is to Ask “Why” Five Times:

The Japanese mantra “ask why five times” is by now pretty well known, I believe, in U.S. manufacturing companies. But “ask why five times” has value outside manufacturing, and indeed in nonbusiness organizations as well as businesses. For those who are interested, a brief summary of the concept, taking the form of a manufacturing example:

There’s a puddle of oil on the shop floor. One of the machines is leaking.

ACTION: Clean up the oil. But then ask…
WHY is there oil on the floor?

The machine has a bad gasket.

ACTION: Replace the gasket. But then ask..
WHY was the gasket bad?

Check out the condition of the gaskets on some other machines.
Looks like we’ve been buying inferior gaskets.

ACTION: Change the specifications so we don’t get any more of these. But also ask..
WHY did we decide to buy the gaskets that we did?

Uhh…they were cheap? Turns out the purchasing policy for supplies like this says “always buy the low bid.”

ACTION: Change the policy to give more weight to quality as well as price. But also ask…
WHY did the head of Purchasing ever approve a policy like this in the first place?

Maybe because his *incentive program* includes a big component for year-over-year reductions in supplies cost, with no measurement for downtime impact of bad items?

ACTION: Change the incentive program.
WHY did a one-sided incentive program like this get created and approved?

Turns out no one in Human Resources has any experience in incentive program design.

ACTION: Assign someone in HR to take some courses and do some reading in the field of incentive programs, how they go right, and how they can go wrong.

It may seem like common sense, but it’s not that easy to implement:

As you go up the levels of successive “why”s, the nature of the problems changes, and hence, the set of people who must be involved in resolving them changes. You can expect a machine operator to notice the oil on the floor, and perhaps to assess and replace the gasket, but it would be unreasonable to expect him to identify the problems in the incentive plan for the director of Purchasing. Hence, handoffs in some form need to occur between the successive levels, and it is at these handoff points that the thread of the problem is likely to be lost.

Leave a Reply