Friday, June 13, 2008


If you have a child who is old enough to speak, you've probably been asked "Why?" thousands of times. I know I have. When my sons were ~2-3 years old, it seemed like everything I said was answered with this question. I wanted to be a good dad and not just tell them "that's just because the way it is", but explain the reasons why. They were trying to discover the detail of their new and wonderful world. It was my job to help them.

It wasn't easy. Sometimes it felt like their "whys" were a bit automated; they just wanted to hear me talk because they were learning phonemes or something. The side effect was that they forced me to dig deep into my own understanding of nature to explain something. For example, they might ask why the sky is blue. I'd tell them that the air bounces the blue colors around more than other colors. The inevitable "whys?" would keep coming. Ever try explaining Rayleigh scattering in terms a two year old would understand?

The interesting thing is that it really makes you think about your own understanding of why things are they way they are. It seems as though we ourselves reach a certain depth of understanding of the world in our own minds and then just tell ourselves "that's just because the way it is". If you've read or listened to Richard Feynman's lectures you realize that part of his genius is that he understands and can explain the way the universe works to a much higher depth of "why" than anyone else.

"Why does our pipeline suck?"

As it turns out, asking "why" is a powerful tool for creating continuous improvement in how products are made. The goal is to extend our depth of understanding about why things are the way they are and improve broken things at their root level.

Take for example, an artist sitting at their desk surfing the web during "working hours" rather than creating art. Many managers out there would be upset with the artist and tell them to get back to work. Some people using agile might say "it's up to the team to deal with how effectively each member of their team is working. Let's ignore it an see how they do at the end of the iteration."

A third choice is to ask "why":

Someone (anyone, not just a manager):
"Why aren't you making art"?

Artist (who is surfing the web):
"I'm waiting for the latest build and I can't do anything else on my PC while it's updating".


"Because the PC is very slow when the update is happening and it takes awhile".


"Because it copies the entire 4 gigs of build data every time something is changed".


"That's just the way it is".

There is a lot of value in finding the limit of our understanding of why things are and finding improvements there. Too many times we end up in situations like the one above where the artist is 50% effective because they don't know why things are the way they are. In this situation the person who does know why the entire 4 gigs of data needs to be copied over for every build might not be aware of the impact it's having.

Asking why is a tool against complacency and for continuous improvement everywhere. As Taiichi Ohno, pioneer of the Toyota Production System used to say: "The root cause of any problem is the key to a lasting solution". Ohno instructed people in Toyota to ask why up to five times....a practice that still goes on today.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There's a certain kind of "organisation smell" that comes with a bad reaction to the "Why" question? When as a consultant, you see some strange behaviour, somebody doing something in a laborious, pointless way perhaps, and you ask "Why" and get the sharp answer "Because we told him to," or "Because we've always done it that way," or "Because that's just the way it is."