“Can someone tell me why I just spent two hours on the phone with a screaming client?”
“They dropped a server rack on their toe and it really hurt?” asked Greg.
I glared at Greg until he went back to studying the dirt under his finger nails. The I turned to Jake, our development manager. “Jake, why can the client only load half their user base into the DB?”
Jake gave a shrug. “No clue, why didn’t QA test that?”
Vinnie jumped forward in his seat, “That’s not even in our test cases, why on earth would we test that.”
The room seemed to pause for a moment and then all eyes slowly turned towards to Tully, our junior product manager. With Bob visiting a potential customer, Tully the product management representative.
An hour later I walked into my office, tossing my coat on the conference table chair. “Poor Tully” I muttered.
I jumped. Turning to look where my coat landed I saw instead Hogarth holding my coat in one hand and looking at me with a questioning gaze.
“Why? Because Tully got torn to pieces in that meeting.” I said.
I blinked at my Gorilla. It wasn’t like him to not know everything. After all wasn’t he just a figment of my imagination? “Because Bob wasn’t there. And Bob is the one who made the requirements that didn’t address the customer’s number one need.”
Now I glared at my gorilla, was there a point to all of this? “So do you have a point with the annoying string of ‘why’?”
Hogarth nodded, “I do. What do you think would be a better way?”
“What?” My brain started spinning, how was this an answer? What did he mean? What was the right answer? Wait, wait, What?
And Hogarth nodded, “Exactly.”
Why the 5 Whys should be the 5 Whats.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve almost certainly heard of Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota. He calls it Five Whys. Unless the rock was really heavy, you’ve also no doubt heard Simon Senek’s “Start with Why” TED Talk.
The Five Whys:
5 Whys is an iterative question-asking technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships of a problem. The goal is to get to the root cause of a problem, because all too often the first cause is not the true cause. Doctor’s call this “treating the symptoms, not the disease.”
An example the 5 Whys :
Why did our service go down?
- Why? – The servers lost power. (first why)
- Why? – The backup power supply didn’t work. (second why)
- Why? – It couldn’t handle the load. (third why)
- Why? – A replacement hasn’t been bought that can meet the power needs. (fourth why)
- Why? – The DataCenter budget was frozen last quarter and we haven’t had the money to perform upgrades. (fifth why, a root cause)
Starting with Why
Simon’s talk is an incredible exploration of how companies can be inspirational and change the world. His Golden Circle places the question “Why” directly in the middle of the circle and What is placed at the edge. As Sinek pounds home, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy how you do it”
The danger of “Why”
“Start with why” is an excellent for a company exploring how they can better market their products. It can help them to better connect with their end customers and provide greater value.
And “why” is completely the wrong word to use when trying to get to the root of a problem.
What makes me say that? Professional coaching has a key concept of using powerful questions. These questions are deigned to help the coach guide the coachee to the answers they need. The coach doesn’t give the answers, the coach doesn’t even guide the answer. The coaches job is to ask the powerful questions that will allow their client to get to the solution. Examples of powerful questions are:
- What is important about that?
- What is stopping you?
- What is the lesson from that?
What you won’t find in powerful questions is “Why”. What is the reason for this?
“Why” questions rests on the popular belief that « to succeed, one should understand how one has failed ». In other words, to learn how to swim, one must carefully analyze how one has almost drowned. In effect, why questions only let clients meander within their same-old limited past frame of reference. A good coaching process needs to gently lead the client out of their box.” (quoted from www.metasysteme-coaching.eu)
The question “why” carries a lot more emotional content than it’s cousin “what”. When you ask someone “Why didn’t you take out the trash” you are essentially putting them on the defensive and laying blame. Even saying “why is the trash still here?” creates an adversarial space.
This is “Why” is not used in coaching. You don’t want the client to get defensive, or wrapped up in the “why” of the problem you want to ask them “what” they need to do to get out of the problem.
Why 5 What’s is better
You see, Toyoda’s 5 Whys could get to the root cause, but all too often I find they side tracked by the personal agendas, defensiveness and the tragic corporate blame game circle. The 5 Whys can so easily go wrong, let’s look at the example above again, this time with real people involved.
Why did our service go down?
- Why? – Because we lost power. (umm duh)
- Why? – Bob hasn’t replaced the damn UPS yet, I’ve been on him for weeks. (the buck is passed)
- Why? – Don’t look at me, I’ve been trying to get the UPS replaced for weeks, finance won’t approve the PO. (the buck passes again)
- Why? – Unless sales starts signing up more customers, we won’t be approving a lot more POs. We’re broke.
We didn’t even get to the 5th why at this point and totally missed that the UPS isn’t broken, just can’t handle the load, so you can’t even explore how to make what you have now work for you.
Let’s try with What.
What caused the service to go down?
- What? – We lost power to the core servers
- What happened to our UPS- It can’t handle the load we have.
- What are we doing about it?- Well we’re trying to get a new one, but budgets are frozen right now.
- What else could we do? We could try putting just half the servers on the UPS. If we lost power we wouldn’t be able to handle a full login load, but we’d be partially up at least.
- What do we need to start doing that? – Give us the okay and we’ll have it done tonight.
Asking “What” is about creates an environment of clearer answers. If you ask “What is the speed of light” you get a very specific answer of 299 792 458 m / s. If you ask “why do people fight?” you could fill a Google datacenter with the results. Not a fair comparison? You’re right, it’s not. “Why” is used when the answer isn’t as clear or there are more than one answer.
So let’s try and experiment. What would happen if we used the 5 Whats instead of the 5 Whys?