Taiichi Ohno, the Japanese engineer who led Toyota’s drive to improve the quality of its cars, taught that to really understand something, you often have to ask “why” at least five successive times. For example:
Question: Why is the gap between the doors wider on one side of a new car wider than on the other side? (Answer: Because the doors come from the stamping plant in slightly different sizes.) Why is that? (Because they are made with different steel lots that form differently.) Why are the steel lots different? (Because the steel mills mix different amounts of scrap and new steel.) Why don’t they use standard ratios of inputs for every lot? (They could but nobody requires them to.) Why can’t Toyota require them to produce uniform lots of steel? (It could be done.)
Questions like those contributed to the revolution in the quality of Japanese steel and cars. That eventually forced U.S. steel and auto industries to make major changes in order to compete. The technique of asking successive, follow-up questions spread to most industries and is a common technique today. Anyone who watched the dependability of cars improve through the second half of the last century knows how important this has been.
In practice, “how” or other adverbs may lead to clearer questions than just “why”. And the answers may be hard to find; some may even require research projects or lead to their own lists of successive questions. But the point is, that the first question about a complex issue often fails to lead to a complete answer or an adequate understanding.
Today, each of us must do our own analyses of competing claims and assertions on many subjects in order to decide what seems most likely to be true. The “5 Whys” can be a vital part of our tool kit. It should not just be used as a weapon to attack opposing views, but also to question our own beliefs.
The power of democracy is not only in the freedom to express our own views, but also the opportunity for many people to hear other views, learn, and reach agreements that are more likely to be right than any individual can do. The word “compromise” is sometimes taken to mean relaxing one’s principles, but in a democracy, it means bringing together the best thoughts of many people to create something more complete and powerful than any individual could produce. The “5 Whys” can often be part of this process.
The space that the DN-R makes available for exchanging views is valuable. With so many important issues that none of us completely understand, it is a shame to waste the space on snap-back, dead-end retorts instead of using it to work toward better, mutual understandings. The “5 Whys” could help us do it.
Thornton “Tip” Parker lives in Rockingham.