5 Why? vs. Why Not?

The Toyota Why Not website came my way via Twitter. It’s an interesting distraction. The best part is the birds chirping. I actually looked for an open window until I realized that birds don’t chirp in January in Seattle. There is a “Sound Off” button at the lower middle part of the page. There is also a great library of kaizen ideas generated by visitors to this website so despite some oddities it’s definitely worth a visit.

As with many companies, the core values of and principles guiding behavior don’t always seem to be synchronized with the needs of marketing and PR at Toyota. First of all what exactly does “Innovation Leads to Evolution” mean? It seems like a throwaway marketing line that ambiguous and generic at best, confusing at worst. And what is “Why Not? Innovation” anyway? Asking “why not?” in fact makes one think of the reasons why not to innovate, when in fact they seem to be using this more as an expression similar to “we did it because we can.” The title of the website raises doubts about the TMMNA PR people’s understanding of the concept of evolution itself.

A more Toyota-like approach would be to walk people through the “5 why” instead of the “why not” as the process of innovation. For each of the air, water, land, safety, etc. innovations it would be much more engaging and educational to begin with the problem statement and step through the chain of causation that led Toyota to these innovations. As they are asking the visitor for their innovative ideas, simple examples should be given along with the thought process, in the same way that they manage their Creative Idea Suggestion System. You can click on the “create an innovation” button on the lower right corner of the page and fill out one of these:

Illustrating these innovations through a 5 why problem solving story would also teach the reader the thinking approach, resulting in more and better innovation ideas. Toyota knows better than this. Nevertheless, there are hundreds of genuinely innovative ideas being generated as a result of this page, such as the one below:


The trouble with asking for ideas based on “why not” is that you are inviting people to think of reasons why something cannot be done. While this is a good idea from a risk management point of view, it leads nowhere in terms of the problem solving process. “This is why not” generally kills an idea like the one above, while a 5 why pursuit of multiple countermeasures to multiple causes is more effective when one or more of them meets with an idea-killing “why not” answer. This is why the deliberate process of problem solving calls for 5 why as well a set-based countermeasures – rather than just one great idea or innovation based on a spark, which are intuitively great but untraceable through the causation chain and potentially indefensible. The why not idea generation approach is what kills many suggestions systems and innovation programs as ideas are killed and employee engagement erodes.

Part of the brilliance of Toyota’s approach to problem solving is that it asks “why?” instead of “why not?” which eliminates the need to defend an idea. If an idea is not particularly a good one, not well though out or does not address the real problem, the skilled leader can ask a series of “why?” questions and lead the idea generator to other ideas. The destination of “why not?” questions are either a risky “I don’t know, let’s try it!” or to an idea, position or belief that a person is defending. The pursuit of “why?” will lead to systemic, process level issues that can be addressed because “why?” is more positive and constructive in pursuit of countermeasures to a common problem. While just one answer to the “why not?” question is enough to stop an idea, many answers to “why?” are needed to for successful problem solving. It feels like the long way around, and it’s counter-intuitive to many people but the 5 why process supports innovation.

For a terrific real-life story of a famous CEO demonstrating leading by example with 5 why problem solving, read yesterday’s article written by Pete Abilla at the Shmula blog.

2 Comments

  1. DJ Duarte

    January 25, 2009 - 12:08 am

    I like it…not just how Toyota uses the 5 why’s to stimulate innovation but how Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com invested time and thought into helping his own employees. Those are not just nice words. They are real actions modeled by leaders that demonstrates why this paradigm has so much potential and how truly powerful this can be towards improving your business and your life. It might sound funny but I use the 5 why’s a lot in helping to defuse arguments between my two young boys. Everything flows…thanks for the read.

  2. jan

    August 12, 2009 - 8:17 am

    Interesting.
    K.Saito had an interesting point of view on this when he talked about kufu vs kaizen and how both add to a fuller comprehension of monozukuri. He said: “Scientists see things that are and ask
    ‘why?’ Engineers dream of things that were not and ask, ‘why not?’.
    The solution for the short term project is usually a result of Kaizen effort, while the
    solution for the long term project often requires revolutionary thinking and revolutionary
    solutions. There may be several factors that can contribute to technology revolution.
    Among them, two major factors are: looking at problems at a non-traditional way (out
    side the box) and creating new ideas to find solutions. The second is to look at the
    problem from the generalist’s point of view but not the specialist’s point of view. To
    take the fresh-look-at approach, we must have Karman type definition of scientific
    curiosity: “ask why things are,” as well as his engineering creativity: “dream of things
    that were not and ask why not.”
    maybe ”why not’ is as important as the 5 why’s.
    or is it just the flip side of the same coin:-)