Purpose for Asking “Why?”

At its heart, Lean is about problem solving. Closing gaps. Overcoming obstacles. Making things better. The basic difference between organizations that succeed long-term with Lean and those who don’t can be gauged by how well they solve problems. Specifically, how early do they recognize and take on problems? How easily can the problem solving approach be taught and transferred to other people? How committed is the organization to developing everyone into problem solvers? When it appears that everything is going smoothly, or that there are no problems, what do leaders do?

As a historical trend, for the past few hundreds of years we have made remarkable innovations, enjoyed technological progress, and general improvements to quality of life. Pretty good results, achieved in rather sloppy and wasteful ways. As groups of people, humans are are still very bad at problem solving. We have gotten by on the fact that the earth’s resources are far in excess of our ability to waste them, but we can’t count on such surplus forever.

Why are organizations still so bad at problem solving? This has fascinated me for a long time. There is something about bringing people together that makes us both smarter and dumber, weaker individually and more powerful as a whole. Teams achieve great things. Bureaucracies exist to perpetuate themselves, shift blame, not necessarily to achieve a higher aim or raise up people. My suspicion is that Lean works when people commit to maximizing individual and group effectiveness through the pillars of continuous improvement and respect for humanity. There is one word that ties these two pillars together.

It is why.

Humans encounter why very early. Small children use the why question to form their understanding of the world around them. As teenagers and young adults we use why to fight for independence, autonomy, identity. As mature adults we may find asking this question rattles the established order and is discouraged. This is why lean learners are re-introduced to why very early in their education.

Lean thinking encourages us to “ask ‘why?’ five times” in order to grasp the situation, find causes for problems and develop possible solutions. “Five times” should be replaced with “persistently” as five is almost never enough. But there is another important correction to the “ask why” rule. We need to be clear about our purpose for asking, “Why?”

Why do we need to be clear about our purpose for asking why?

Because there are two types of questions represented by the one English word “why” and each serves a different purpose. To illustrate

1. How come we need to be clear about our purpose for asking why?

Sometimes we ask “why?” to mean “how come?” or “how did [the current situation] come to be?” This is a process narrative question. The answers will involve means, rational mechanisms, steps, objective phenomena, things leading to other things.

The “how come” question applied to purpose makes no sense. Purpose implies human intention, motive, assigned meaning.

On the other hand, we can answer, “How come plants grow towards the sun?” based on the science of biology.

2. What for do we need to be clear about our purpose for asking why?

When we ask “why?” to mean “what for” the desire is to know human intent, motive, or meaning behind the action. It is a personal narrative question. The answers are often subjective, and may or may not be rational.

The “what for” question applies well to purpose. We can express answers as opinions such as “because if we are not clear why we are asking ‘why?’ people may get offended, answer the wrong question, slow down problem solving…” or otherwise create conditions that we judge to be bad.

What are, “What for?” questions for? To understand the minds of others. How come we ask, “How come?” questions? To understand the workings of the world around us. I believe this is an important distinction that lies at the heart of successful Lean characterized by continuous improvement and respect for humanity.

Perhaps you are not having any problems at all with problem solving, getting to actionable root causes, receiving clear answers to “how come” and “what for” questions. Even if this is so, listeners to your questions may benefit from understanding your purpose for asking “why?”


  1. Ajay

    May 29, 2017 - 11:30 am

    Feeling important to understand the article.
    If you could elaborate with few more examples.
    It’s little heavy article for person like me with average English skills .

    • Jon Miller

      May 30, 2017 - 10:10 pm

      Hello Ajay

      Both “How come?” and “What for?” are expressions meaning “Why?”

      “How come” asks about cause-and-effect in the physical world. For example

      Q: How come the machine broke down?
      A: Because dirt got into the filter, making the motor overheat.

      “What for” asks about motivation or mind. For example

      Q: What did you buy a new filter for?
      A: Because I want to replace the old one before it gets too dirty.

      Both are “why?” questions but each one should be used in different situations.

  2. Brooks Davis

    May 30, 2017 - 12:11 pm

    Thanks for a succinct but high value post. The “how come” and “what for” insights are powerful.

    • Jon Miller

      May 30, 2017 - 10:11 pm

      Thanks Brooks

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