A lot of us have trouble dealing with conflict. But there’s an effective strategy for solving problems at work and at home. The only downside? It makes you sound a bit like a toddler on a road trip.
The secret to resolving conflict, as first outlined by former Toyota executive Taiichi Ohno, is to “ask why five times.” The idea is that by continuously asking “why,” you’ll eventually arrive at a root cause and learn from the problem—the better to avoid repeating unproductive or ignorant behavior.
In order for this management practice to be effective, it’s necessary to see conflict not as a negative but as “a kaizen (continuous improvement) opportunity in disguise,” in Ohno’s words. “Having no problems is the biggest problem of all,” he said in the 1950s.
As Toyota’s website explains, Ohno used the example to address problems as they occurred on the production floor. If a welding robot stopped in the middle of its operation, the discussion might go this way:
“Why did the robot stop?” The circuit has overloaded, causing a fuse to blow.
“Why is the circuit overloaded?” There was insufficient lubrication on the bearings, so they locked up.
“Why was there insufficient lubrication on the bearings?” The oil pump on the robot is not circulating sufficient oil.
“Why is the pump not circulating sufficient oil?” The pump intake is clogged with metal shavings.
“Why is the intake clogged with metal shavings?” Because there is no filter on the pump.
Toyota still uses the “ask why” tactic, but it’s spread far beyond auto manufacturing. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Eric Ries cites it as an essential investment strategy in his book, The Lean Startup. The world’s largest hedge fund embraces it as a key management principle. And software engineers and health-care strategists alike embrace it as a means for effective customer engagement.
The method works because it forces people to understand a problem before attempting to solve it, whereas many of us are more likely to take issues at face value. “We are wired for consistency and efficiency, so we’re not likely to go in search of discomforting information or insight,” says Liane Davey, an organizational psychologist and author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done. “The technique is particularly useful for getting beneath the facts and information to the emotional layer, and eventually to the level of the values and motives that actually drive our behavior.”
Take this scenario: You just gave a PowerPoint presentation, and it went overtime. Your client had a hard stop, so they didn’t hear your team’s full proposal. Whether with your boss, or afterward on your own time, you begin asking why:
- “Why didn’t the client hear our full proposal?” Because I ran out of time.
- “Why did you run out of time?” Because I was long-winded when presenting my slides.
- “Why were you long-winded?” Because I had not practiced presenting my slides the night before.
- “Why hadn’t you practiced?” Because I was tied up with a friend last night, and had other things to get through during the day yesterday.
- “Why were you tied up with a friend, and focusing on other projects the day before a client presentation?“
The answer to this fifth question will vary. Perhaps it’s “Because, to be honest, I have a hard time sorting out my personal and professional priorities,” or “Because I was too much of a control freak to ask for help on my other projects,” or “Because I know I’m a bad public speaker, but instead of asking someone else to present or help me on my skills, I self-sabotaged.” Whatever the answer, knowing the fundamental, underlying issue that caused the problem is essential to solving it.
And if asking “why” outright feels annoying or accusatory, Davey suggests implementing the strategy with alternative language. Open-ended questions like “How did you arrive at that answer,” “Which factors did you consider,” “What do you mean when you say that,” or “What’s underlying that thought,” can all trigger thoughtful, genuine answers—without putting the other person on the defensive.