Solve problems better by asking ‘why’ five times

Taiichi Ohno was a Japanese industrial engineer who is considered to be the father of the famous Toyota Production System that revolutionized manufacturing across the globe. The Toyota system, which is known as Lean Manufacturing in the west, was the brainchild of Ohno which drove Toyota to a major industrial powerhouse from the ashes of World War II. This system, more than any other aspect of the company, is responsible for having made Toyota the company it is today.

In life, we come across problems in all sorts of situations, and according to Taiichi Ohno, “Having no problems is the biggest problem of all.” Ohno saw a problem not as a negative, but, in fact, as an opportunity in disguise.” Whenever one cropped up, he encouraged his staff to explore problems first-hand until the root causes were found. “Genchi Genbutsu”, which means go to the source to find the facts to make correct decisions, was the key principle of his approach.“Observe the production floor without preconceptions,” he would advise. “Ask ‘why’ five times about every matter.”

The main takeaway here is that by continuously asking “why” you’ll eventually arrive at a root cause of a problem and will learn to avoid repeating the ignorant behavior. Ohno’s gives an example of a welding robot stopping in the middle of its operation to demonstrate the usefulness of his method, finally arriving at the root cause of the problem through persistent inquiry:

“Why did the robot stop?” The circuit has overloaded, causing a fuse to blow.

“Why is the circuit overloaded?” There was insufficient lubrication on the bearings, so they locked up.

“Why was there insufficient lubrication on the bearings?” The oil pump on the robot is not circulating sufficient oil.

“Why is the pump not circulating sufficient oil?” The pump intake is clogged with metal shavings.

“Why is the intake clogged with metal shavings?” Because there is no filter on the pump.

Thus arriving at the root cause and fixing it, in the case of the example above, putting a filter on the pump will provide a permanent solution. Today this way of thinking is employed from Silicon Valley to Wall Street. In our daily lives, we can use this system with success.

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