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It’s only by asking “why” that we begin to dig beneath the surface and the visible symptoms. Asking questions guides our learning, rewards us with a richer understanding of what’s really happening. And this is foundational to getting the right answers
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After Pearl Harbor, when the United States wanted to punish Japan, it wasn’t so simple. Why? Well, the two countries were probably the most geographically apart combatants. Australia or Hawaii was more than four thousand miles away from Tokyo, in fact, there wasn’t an airbase controlled by the Allies within a thousand miles of that city. Why was this important? The B-17 bomber, the Flying Fortress, the mainstay of the US Army Air Forces had a range of roughly two thousand miles – one thousand miles out and a thousand miles back. Taking the attack to Japan led to building the B-29 Superfortress, with an effective range of more than three thousand miles. It also led to the next step of capturing tiny islands, mere specks on the Pacific, the Mariana islands of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam. These islands were controlled by the Japanese and after a brutal campaign they fell to the US Army.
The Seebees, the Navy’s construction battalion, built what was then, the world’s largest airport. This then put Tokyo within reach, the city was fifteen hundred miles over the water. It was from these islands that the US Army launched Operation Meetinghouse, the firebombing of Tokyo. Even Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress, that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, took off from the Northern Mariana Islands.
This anecdote also demonstrates how asking a simple question – why – has the power to get to the heart of any issue. Quite often, we only see symptoms and the root cause of a problem is mostly hidden. Effective solutions must begin with a deeper understanding and definition of the problem.
The Five Whys technique is a useful way to drill down to the root cause of an issue. This systematic problem-solving technique was developed by Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System. The method is very simple, you interrogate the data by asking ‘why’ five times.
Let’s attempt to apply this technique to a fictional CPG brand. No-Name is a packaged condiment, a market-leader, but recent data reveals that No-Name lost 80 bps share over the prior period. Asking the first why reveals, that the decline is largely led by a new SKU
(stock keeping unit) format, PET 13x. Why? Decline is largely in general trade and not in modern trade. Why? Panel data reveals that PET 13x is losing buyers in the lower SEC. Why? The value conscious lower SEC have begun buying smaller SKU (sachets) or a larger format (Bottle 26x) that offers more value and they are also migrating to these formats from competing brands.
As you can see, the Five Whys technique revealed something new about the problem and a potential root cause for the marketer to address.
It’s only by asking “why” that we begin to dig beneath the surface and the visible symptoms. Asking questions guides our learning, rewards us with a richer understanding of what’s really happening. And this is foundational to getting the right answers and developing effective solutions.
Also, as we grow older, our sense of curiosity is jaded and many in the corporate world become rule-followers. We stop thinking or applying ourselves. We are afraid of asking “dumb questions”. Or think that we will waste other people’s time by asking questions that need people to pause and reflect on before answering them. Nothing can be further away from the truth. Asking why is also important to rebuild our sense of wonder and curiosity. Asking why is a simple, yet powerful way to problem solve and rediscover ourselves amidst all the complexity surrounding us. So, if there is a new year resolution you need to make, here a simple one – start asking why.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.