Eric Ries’s description of the five ‘why’s has been playing on my mind recently as I figure out how to apply it in my company. Briefly, mistakes happen to everyone all the time, but the difference is how you respond to them. In particular, if you ask Why five times you have a much better chance at understanding the true cause of a problem and thus solving it.
The press do this too little and as citizens we suffer from this lack of questioning. Take the tragic story from May 12th of a roof collapsing on students while they were doing an exam. The link is to Google’s indexing of coverage for the story. Sadly, most of the articles focus on showing the “devastation inside exam horror hall”.
It is only on the excellent Teachers TV that I saw a follow-up to the story. As a side note, this is a wonderful channel that I am becoming hooked on. The technical director for the founding team is Dawson King, who is now our chief technology offier.
The channel gets much further than the newspapers did on the day just by asking Why once. In the seventh minute of this video they mention that an inquiry had found that the heating duct “fell because the wires attaching it to the roof broke”. This is not really informative. Just to translate, something (the duct) fell because what used to stop it from falling (the wires) stopped stopping it. In general, it is reasonable to assume the same to be true for any story of part of a building falling.
Asking Why four more times would get you much further. Why did the wire break? Because it was frayed, the answer might come back – I am guessing here and do not know any more facts than the ones I saw in the news story. Why was it frayed? Because it was old. Why was it old? Because the school’s maintenance budget has been underfunded for the last five years. Why was it underfunded? The answer to this will be an interesting one.