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Don't You Want to Know Why? The Importance of 'Why?' in Agile: Exploring the Power of the Five 'Whys?'



Why being Curious is a key value in working with Agile and Business Agility

Many of us has been in the position of being asked ‘Why?’. For those of you who have been around a toddler at any stage – this is a key development time - when the word and the word as a question ‘why?’ can stem from curiosity in a sentiment to understand and find out more, and perhaps also to arouse a reaction! In our day to day lives this should also ring true, so - why do we ask why? and why is it important to ask why? – particularly when working with Agile and business agility.


Curiosity can be an important ally when working through complexity, a mindset shift and contemporary ways of working such as agile. In asking why and invoking curiousness you have already set the wheels in motion for a more agile mindest - 'stirring the pot' of innovation and motivation to be resourceful. Some of my favourite and most valued values. Yes, I am unashemdly nosey by nature (many who know me will be atesting to it!) so asking why? is with permission to find out more and more and get to the bottom of it all!

And so by starting with ‘why’ helps you to focus on the issue at hand – moreover I have found the first answer to ‘why?’ isn’t really where we need to be, or end up, in understanding the real problem – or opportunity at hand. So keep going for a few more 'whys?'!


Sometimes the ‘Why?” is being asked simply to understand more, at a high level, to 1) unravel the problem to get the root cause 2) to help solve for the problem at hand 3) prevent the incident happening again and 4) risk mitigation.


"Why?" is more than just a question—it's a strategic tool that drives clarity, innovation, and continuous improvement. As a business agility consultant, I have witnessed how being curious can help to delve deep into the reasons behind decisions, actions, and problems can transform teams and organisations. By being curious you're already tapping into a creative, innovative way of thinking in problem solving and solution making. The practice of asking "Why?" five times, commonly known as the "Five Whys" technique, is particularly powerful. This approach helps uncover the root causes of issues, align efforts with strategic goals, and foster a culture of continuous learning and improvement.


Origins of the 5 Whys Technique - Sakichi Toyoda, the Japanese industrialist, inventor, and founder of Toyota Industries, developed the 5 Whys technique in the 1930s. It became popular in the 1970s, and Toyota still uses it to solve problems today. Toyota has a "go and see" philosophy. This means that its decision making is based on an in-depth understanding of what's actually happening on the shop floor, rather than on what someone in a boardroom thinks might be happening.

 

The 5 Whys technique is an iterative interrogative approach used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a specific problem.  Its primiary goal is to determine the root cause of a defect or issue by repeatedly asking "Why?". Here’s how it works:


  1. Identify the Problem: Start with the unexpected event or challenge you’re facing.

  2. Ask “Why?”: Dig into the problem and ask why it occurred. Repeat this process five times, each time asking why.

  3. Uncover Root Causes: By going deeper with each “Why?” question, you’ll uncover the underlying reasons behind the issue.

  4. Avoid Blame: Remember that the purpose isn’t to blame anyone but to understand the true cause.

  5. Know when to stop – asking why! Repeatedly asking "Why?" can sometimes lead to frustration or fatigue among team members. Stopping at the right time helps maintain morale and keeps the team engaged and motivated. It ensures that the process remains productive and positive, rather than becoming a tedious exercise.


‘Ask Why five times about every matter.’

Taiichi Ohno



The Power of 'Why?'

1. Surface-Level Understanding

The first "Why?" addresses the immediate reason behind a decision or problem. For instance, "Why did we miss the deadline?" This initial question often reveals obvious factors, such as unexpected delays or resource shortages. Understanding this immediate cause is essential for taking prompt and corrective action.

2. Exploring Contributing Factors

The second "Why?" delves into the contributing factors. If the initial answer is "Because we had unexpected delays," the follow-up might be "Why did we have unexpected delays?" This question can uncover specific issues, such as dependency on third-party vendors or internal bottlenecks, providing more context to the surface-level problem.

3. Uncovering Process Inefficiencies

The third "Why?" digs deeper into process inefficiencies. If delays were due to dependency on vendors or specific resources, the next question could be "Why are we dependent on these vendors/ resources?" This level of inquiry often highlights systemic issues, such as reliance on external resources for critical tasks, that need addressing to prevent recurrence.

4. Identifying Organisational Barriers

The fourth "Why?" examines organisational barriers. For example, "Why do we rely on external vendors for critical tasks?" This question may reveal deeper organisational issues, such as lack of in-house expertise or inadequate resource allocation. Understanding these barriers is crucial for implementing strategic improvements.

5. Revealing Root Causes

The fifth "Why?" uncovers the root cause. If the reliance on vendors is due to a lack of in-house expertise, the final question might be "Why don't we have the necessary expertise in-house?" This deep inquiry can reveal fundamental problems, such as insufficient training programs or flawed hiring practices. Addressing these root causes leads to more sustainable and effective solutions.


The Five Whys in Action - Consider a scenario where a team experiences a high rate of defects in their product from testing.

Diagram shows - The 5 Whys as a 'real life' scenario when in testing to help form a root cause for a holist understanding. 



By asking "Why?" five times, the team moves from identifying a symptom (high defect rate) to understanding a fundamental issue (i.e unrealistic timelines due to overly optimistic estimates). This deep understanding enables the team to implement more effective measures, such as better estimation practices and allowing for any buffer time for unforeseen challenges


Benefits of the Five Whys Technique 

The 5 Whys methodology emphasises "counter-measures" over "solutions." A counter-measure involves taking actions designed to prevent the problem from reoccurring, whereas a solution might only address the immediate symptom. Consequently, counter-measures are more robust and effective at preventing the issue from happening again.


  • Comprehensive Problem-Solving - The Five Whys technique promotes a thorough investigation of issues, ensuring that teams address root causes rather than just symptoms. This comprehensive approach leads to more effective and sustainable solutions. However, an important part of asking ‘why’ is also knowing when to stop – asking why!

  • Strategic Alignment- By uncovering the deeper reasons behind actions and problems, the Five Whys help ensure that day-to-day activities align with the organisation's strategic goals. This alignment enhances coherence and purpose across the organisation.

  • Continuous Improvement - Regularly asking "Why?" fosters a culture of continuous learning and improvement. Teams become more adept at identifying and addressing underlying issues, driving ongoing enhancement of processes and outcomes.

  • Empowerment and Engagement - Understanding the deeper reasons behind their work empowers team members, fostering a sense of ownership and engagement. This empowerment leads to higher motivation and productivity.

  • Proactive Risk Management - The Five Whys technique helps teams identify potential risks and issues before they escalate. By understanding the root causes of problems, teams can implement proactive measures to mitigate future risks.


In Agility, the question "Why?" is a powerful tool for driving clarity, alignment, and continuous improvement. By adopting the Five Whys technique, teams can move beyond surface-level solutions and uncover the deeper insights necessary for true business agility.

As a business agility consultant, I advocate in being curious, asking why? and for making the ‘Five Whys’ an integral part of your problem-solving toolkit. This simple yet transformative practice can significantly enhance your team's effectiveness and your organisation's overall agility. 


So next time you face a challenge, remember to ask, "Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?" and witness how this profound inquiry leads to meaningful and impactful understanding and solutions. When you ask 'why?' next think of how by stirring yours and your team's curiousity can lead to innovation, motivation and resourcefulness through your agile mindset adoption, working with agile and business agility workings. 



Author | Sarah Verity - quenable.com.au


For more information on how you can start to explore your business agility potential and how we can help you- Contact | quenable or email directly to info@quenable.com.au

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