I recently came across the problem solving technique of asking ‘why?’ five times, irrespective of the answer, to get to the root cause of a problem. Despite it sounding like something a small child would do, it really struck a chord and intrigued me.
I actually didn’t know how many ‘whys’ it was before I looked it up, so today, again, I am amazed by the power of Google – it literally took me about three seconds to find all sorts of information about it. Seems to be an almost daily occurrence these days.
Anyway, on doing some digging, I found out that it originated, fairly unsurprisingly, in Japanese manufacturing processes and was developed by Sakichi Toyoda (founder of Toyota). Here’s their commonly used example:
1. “Why did the robot stop?”
– “The circuit has overloaded, causing a fuse to blow.”
2. “Why is the circuit overloaded?”
– “There was insufficient lubrication on the bearings, so they locked up.”
3. “Why was there insufficient lubrication on the bearings?”
– “The oil pump on the robot is not circulating sufficient oil.”
4. “Why is the pump not circulating sufficient oil?”
– “The pump intake is clogged with metal shavings.”
5. “Why is the intake clogged with metal shavings?”
– “Because there is no filter on the pump.”
Bingo, they found their solution – fit a filter on the pump.
The number of whys is actually not crucial, it’s the principle of avoiding assumptions and logic traps, and not being afraid to keep asking why in order to really delve into and solve an issue by reaching its root cause. Despite originating in the refinement of manufacturing processes, it struck me that there’s obvious potential for this approach to be put to good use in marketing communications too.
“We’d like you to look at a new marketing campaign for our range of products.”
– “The Sales Director is demanding a refresh.”
– “We’re not selling as many units as we were this time last year.”
– “The current marketing campaign is losing relevance with our target audience?”
-“Research has shown that the time and cost saving benefits of our range are no longer the most important drivers of purchase.”
– “Environmental issues and sustainability have become much more high profile recently and so we want to focus on the ‘green’ benefits of our range.”
Now the agency has some excellent insight to build the creative solution around. If you keep asking why, you’ll arrive at something atomic and actionable.
At times we’re guilty of shying away from asking too many questions because we think that people will find it intrusive and annoying. We should remind ourselves that asking why shouldn’t be seen as questioning the validity of a request, but rather as seeking to optimise the response to it.
Taking a bit of time to figure out which direction to run in, instead of setting off straight away, is going to ensure that you consistently get to the correct destination in the quickest time. And there’s a lot to be said for ‘right first time’, because it’s the quickest, cheapest and most pain-free solution for both agencies and their clients.