Home > Improvement Kata & Coaching Kata> ARE WE USING THE 5 WHYS INCORRECTLY?


FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION. Like several Lean concepts of the 20th Century, we should perhaps revisit our interpretation of this one. The 5 Whys may be more brainstorming technique than problem-solving technique. See also: http://goo.gl/pVKilS
By Mike Rother and Constantin May | October 2013
by Dan Riley | November 2013
Below, an excerpt from the book, Look Before You Lean: How a Lean Transfiormation Goes Bad--A Cautionary Tale

One of the most appealing things for me personally when Lean first arrived at my work place was WTF’s reference (in its otherwise sorry orientation PowerPoint) to the Socratic method. As a one-time educator, I fell in love with Socrates’ approach to teaching by constantly probing the student with questions aimed at driving thinking deeper and deeper. I’ve practiced the Socratic method and believed in it...without making a fetish of it...for my entire professional life. Like so much else, WTF managed to muck up the Socratic method by tying it to its simpleminded “5 Whys,” the result being a kind of Socratic method for real dummies. Here’s an example of how WTF chose to illustrate its “5 Whys”:

Problem Statement: Lots of bird droppings on the Jefferson Memorial

Why? Birds perching on the roof

Why? To eat the spiders

Why? Spiders there to eat the moths

Why? Moths gather at dusk

Why? Moths attracted by monument’s floodlights, which are turned on earlier than lights at other area sites.

Corrective action: Turn floodlights on half hour later than usual.

See how easy it is? WTF’s model inspired me to invent The Socratic Inquiry Drinking Game. It goes like this: every time you answer a Why, take a drink. Here goes:

Problem Statement: My horse is too weak to ride

Why? I cannot water my horse

Why? My bucket won’t hold water.

Why? It has a hole in it

Why? My horse kicked it

Why? Because he wanted water

Somewhere in the great beyond Socrates is spitting up his hemlock. If you think WTF’s “5 Whys” is the path to Socratic thinking, I have a few points off my IQ I’d like to sell you. The whole idea behind Socratic questioning is that you don’t know where the questions will lead either you or the student…there is no neat, programmed path to the corrective action. There is, or should be, great uncertainty with that first Why for both the teacher and the student. If the teacher already knows the answer to the Why, there’s no point in asking it. In fact there’s great risk in asking it unless you’re challenging a student on a given assignment and testing rather than asking. But if you’re challenging a student on his or her critical thinking, the question must be legitimate, otherwise the student sniffs out the phoniness in the exercise right off and it becomes—at the risk of going Japanese here—pure kabuki.

If you want to teach this kind of probing thinking, you ask your student or worker to ask a real Why question—something that has been nagging at him or her, like Why am I not getting satisfaction from my job? Which might lead to, What do you want out of your job? Or How did you end up here? (Another important aspect of real questions is that they don’t always start with a Why). Really asking questions is high risk, but that’s what makes it an engaging act. Only in being willing to take that risk are you able to demonstrate the richness and rewards of the process.

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