What You Need to Know About Asking the Right Questions

I have often wondered about the effectiveness of specific methods – little tips and tricks that we learn and believe to be helpful in our daily business lives. One such trick I use to use was ‘the 5 whys’.
We should all know the story of the 5 whys – ask why 5 times and you should be at the root cause of your problem.
Is this the right thing to be doing though?

Consider this scenario:-
A manager is walking along the factory floor and notices a pool of oil on the floor. Being a practitioner of the 5 whys he asks a nearby staff member, ‘Why is there oil on the floor?’
The staff member replies, ‘Because John did not clean it up
‘Why did John not clean it up?’
John is not here today.’
‘Where is John’s replacement?’
Don’t know there was one.
So the manager goes off to HR and asks about the staffing. He discovers there is a resourcing issue and solves this problem to prevent oil from being on the floor in the future.
But did he solve the right problem or merely solve the wrong problem precisely?
Here is another way the questioning could have gone:
‘Why is there oil on the floor?’
‘Because it is leaking from the overhead pipe.’
‘Why is it leaking from the pipe?’
‘The gaskets keep failing.’
‘Why do the gaskets keep failing?’
‘Poor quality, we suspect.’
‘Why are we buying poor quality gaskets?’
‘Company policy to buy bulk when there is a good deal going, we have 1000s of them.’
So now the manager can solve another problem – the quality inspections or the company policy.

Are the 5 whys that useful a tool then?

Ian Mitroff suggests that we can avoid making these types of E3 errors, as he calls them, by doing the following:

  • Select the Right Stakeholder – ensure a good mix of shared and challenging views in your group.
  • Expand Your Options – look at problem from more than one perspective:
    • Scientific / Technical
    • Interpersonal / Social
    • Existential
    • Systemic
  • Extend the Boundaries of Your Problem – broaden the boundaries of any problem up to and a little beyond your comfort zone
  • Think Systemically – do not focus on a single part of the problem or ignore connections between parts. Failure to think systemically will lead to an E3 error.

Making sure you ask the right questions is a great skill to learn and it will definitely help you understand your situation more closely so that you can plan for better outcomes.