Kids, Leonardo, and the 5 Why’s

I do a little volunteering at one of our local Chicago Public Schools helping 3rd graders with reading. It is a great experience for me and a ton of fun to watch these young kids as they process all this new information and build their minds and their imaginations. This is an absolute prime age for asking why, and I get to giggling a bit during some of our sessions as I’m bombarded with questions. Can you imagine how often their regular teachers get asked why on any number of subjects? It’s truly remarkable and so invigorating to witness their insatiable appetite for learning new things.

I’m also lucky enough to have 5 grandkids ranging in age from 3 years old all the way up to 18. They too have a curiosity level that’s off the charts…especially the toddler and the grade schoolers. They are always asking why, and often multiple times. Part of it is to test limits or to see if you’ll give consistent answers to the same questions, but mainly its just pure curiosity. They truly want to learn as so many things are new for them, and they are genuinely super interested in almost everything. Asking why is just a part of growing up—part of the learning process.

But somewhere along the way we seem to lose our intense curiosity, and we tend to ask why less often. Maybe we believe we know most of the answers, that we have everything figured out. Or possibly we think asking why exposes a tiny bit of ignorance, and we’re either too embarrassed to admit we don’t understand something. Or worse yet we think it makes us look weak.

I’m in the middle of reading Walter Isaacson’s excellent biography of Leonardo da Vinci and one of the amazing things that made Leonardo so unique was his intense curiosity. Yes, he was unbelievably intelligent, creative, and artistically talented (and an engineer, architect, designer, etc.)—even from a very young age. But what really stands out about him, even much later in life, was how he was constantly asking why about everything around him. Why do pools of water in an eddy curl just like the curls of human hair? Why does an object seem to change size when viewed under different intensities of light? Why do objects closer to us look larger than those farther away? Why do some birds have larger tails and shorter wings versus others that have smaller tails and longer wings? Einstein is another example of an acknowledged genius who was constantly asking why, never afraid to show that he didn’t comprehend something, and always starting a new search for answers. They both knew the power of “why.”

In your operation you can use the innate curiosity of your people and a simple yet effective Lean/Six-Sigma technique called “The 5-Why’s” to get to root cause and solve problems right on the shop floor. The 5 Whys is a technique used in the Analyze phase of the Six Sigma DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) methodology. By repeatedly asking the question “Why” (five is a good rule of thumb), you can peel away the layers of symptoms which can lead to the root cause of a problem. Sakichi Toyoda, one of the fathers of the Japanese industrial revolution and founder of Toyota Industries, developed the technique in the 1930’s, and Toyota still uses it to solve problems today. Taiichi Ohno (considered to be the father of the Toyota Production System, which became Lean Manufacturing in the U.S.) is quoted as stating:

“The basis of Toyota’s scientific approach is to ask why five times whenever we find a problem … By repeating why five times, the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear. “

This technique is easy to understand and use, and most importantly can push problem solving and decision making down in your organization into the hands of the people directly involved in the process. Sudden unexpected quality defect showing up on a particular production line? Stop the process, gather the team, do a quick 5 Why exercise, and there’s a good chance your team will get to the root cause and fix the issue without calling in management, maintenance, etc. Sudden flurry of minor customer complaints about wait times for food orders in your restaurants dining room? Just a few minutes with the head waitress, the expediter, and a line cook running a 5 Why may just get the issue stopped before calling in the floor manager and the head chef. You get the picture. Now you have a way to tap into the natural curiosity of your people and empower them to make quick and instant improvements to your process.

Here are a few quick and easy resources to get you jump started on incorporating the 5 Why’s into your everyday improvement toolbox:

Model, hire, train, reward, and recognize quick problem solving and root cause analysis inside your company and make this part of your daily and weekly management routine. You’ll get happier, more relaxed and engaged employees as a result, and your team will have more skills and resources to perform the tasks that drive your business forward every day.  Don’t just say it—lead by doing it.

Photo: J. Carbine taken of cover of LEONARDO DA VINCI by Walter Isaacson

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