Taiichi Ohno, the father of Toyota’s production system, instituted a technique called 5 Whys. It involves nothing more than asking 5 Whys in succession whenever a problem is found, just as an inquisitive toddler does.
This technique seems almost too simple to be of any use. When I first came across it, I paid no attention to it. However, it can make a world of difference when applied correctly and take us to the root cause of a problem.
For instance, I had written about how medical science treats symptoms rather than an underlying cause. Now let us apply the 5 Whys to a hypothetical stomach ache.
1. Why does my stomach ache?
Because I ate three cup-cakes after lunch at my table at work.
2. Why did I eat so many cup cakes?
Because I was stressed out. It seemed like a quick reward.
3. Why was I stressed out?
Because my manager keeps piling up work on my plate.
4. Why does my manager keep increasing my work?
Because he seems to have forgotten about the second project I started a week ago.
5. Why have I not reminded him about my second project?
Because I do not find enough time with him to sustain ongoing communication
In this example, the root cause of a stomach ache was actually a communication issue. Physicians, as I had argued earlier, often do not even ask the first “Why”. And rightly so, because it in several cases the cause is none of their business. Besides, taking a pill seems to cure one stomach ache, while encouraging several others by allowing us to escape its consequences. But getting to the root cause of an ache can potentially prevent several others that follow.
Coming back to how simple this technique is, it is important to distinguish between simple and easy here. 5 Whys is a simple technique. But its application can be surprisingly difficult.