Why “why” is the most important question you’ll ever ask

21.05.2012
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Five paths to enlightenment

Why is the sky blue? Why on this night do we eat matzoh? Why can’t I understand my cellphone bill? With all due respect to journalism, the big questions are not “who, what, where, when and how” but “why, why, why, why, why?” At least, that’s the theory of Eric Ries, author of the Lean Startup, who argues that to get to the root of a problem, you have to ask “why?” Not once, not twice, but five times. It sounds like a zen koan, but the system of “Five Whys” enables you to break down a problem or challenge into smaller and smaller increments until you arrive at the root cause. Created by Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System, the Five Whys was originally designed as a scientific approach to solving technical problems, which, it turns out (no surprise), are usually caused by human error (e.g. lack of training, misunderstandings, rushed schedules). Think of the Five Whys as “slow thinking,” a mindfulness that ties the “rate of progress to learning, not just execution” and sheds enlightenment on apparently insurmountable problems, failures or other organizational surprises. But why limit the questioning to start-ups or established companies? Think of the effect it can have on all the other issues or creative challenges that afflict us in every day life. Why did this or that ad (or product) fail? Why is universal health care seemingly beyond our reach (or will)? Why did Facebook’s IPO disappoint? Why can’t we all get along? Why indeed.

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