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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Why - The Ultimate Question

It's a good idea to simply ask "why?" when you get stuck with some problem. This simple yet revelatory question may lead surprisingly good results, especially after applied a few times in a row. This technique is also know as "The Five Whys". Even though it has been named that way, the amount of "whys" can be totally arbitrary.

Interestingly this technique was originally developed by the folks behind Kanban at Toyota Motor Corporation. This kind of root cause analysis can give nice insight to processes and the way they work so I guess it's not that surprising.

The Wikipedia article about the subject highlights a few possible problems with this method. First of all it is possible to stop asking too soon. Instead of fixing the actual cause of the problem you may end up alleviating its symptoms while leaving the actual problem intact.

Sometimes you simply might not know the right answer or you might get different answers altogether depending on where you get them from. It is also mentioned you might end up revealing just one issue of many.

How to deal with these problems in practice? Given the possibility that you might get multiple answers for each "why", perhaps it makes sense to treat the method in a tree-like manner. Instead of just going through one set of whys, you might want to expand as needed based on your answers. This should help particularly with the last problem mentioned.

"The Five Whys" is a simple yet powerful method to apply in many contexts. If you've got a problem, explore it with whys. At least this should give you some more insight to the subject and hopefully the solution. It's kind of a trivial idea but still one worth keeping in mind.