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  • Jordan Christensen

Do the 5 Whys Actually Belong in Lean Construction?

As we went over in the last post, lean construction includes many different techniques and methods. One of those methods is the 5 Whys. The 5 Whys was a part of the Toyota Production System created by Sakichi Toyoda. Simply put, this method involves asking ‘Why?’ five times in a row in order to find the root cause of an issue. Often, the root cause ends up being something completely different than expected. In a perfect world, these meetings asking ‘why’ to find a root cause are expedient, collaborative, and insightful with an improved process as the outcome.

So it sounds like this method works fine, right? Wrong.

According to Chris Voss, who is a former hostage negotiator for the FBI, the word ‘why’ is a subconscious trigger. In his book Never Split the Difference, he describes how ‘why’ puts people immediately on the defensive. Voss also speaks about calibrating your questions. In summary, using open-ended questions with softening phrases like ‘perhaps’, ‘maybe’, ‘I think’, and ‘it seems’ creates a specific effect for the intended recipient, and takes away potential aggression. How does this happen? By letting your recipient interpret the question and phrasing, and in turn allowing you to introduce ideas and requests without sounding intimidating or aggressive. These types of questions offer no target for attack like statements do. Phrasing questions in this manner is vital to the counterpart understanding the issue and offering the solution you want.

Instead of asking ourselves ‘why’, Voss suggests we ask ‘what’ and ‘how’. Most ‘why’ questions can be rephrased with a ‘what’ or a ‘how’. Calibrated questions also avoid the use of verbs or closed-ended words like ‘can’, ‘is’, ‘are’, ‘do’, and ‘does’. Voss lays out a few common questions that he has used in almost all situations.

  • What is the biggest challenge you face?

  • What about this is important to you?

  • How can I help to make this better for us?

  • How would you like me to proceed?

  • What is it that brought us into this situation?

  • How can we solve this problem?

  • What’s the objective?

  • What are we trying to accomplish here?

  • How am I supposed to do that?

These questions all serve a purpose- to gather information and get your counterpart to teach you something about themselves. Well-calibrated questions imply that you want what they want but you need his/her intelligence to overcome the problem. This plays to egotistical and aggressive recipients. You’ve implicitly asked for help, which triggers goodwill and less defensiveness, while creating a situation in which your counterpart is now using his/her mental and emotional resources to overcome your challenges. Boom! Step one of the process of getting him/her to see your way as being his/her idea is complete…and then this guides the other party toward developing a solution.

Voss states, “The secret to gaining the upper hand in a negotiation is giving the other side the illusion of control. That’s why calibrated questions are ingenious: Calibrated questions make your counterpart feel like they’re in charge, but it’s really you who are framing the conversation. Your counterpart will have no idea how constrained they are by your questions.”

Instead of creating conflict, you are creating collaboration and that much closer to finding a solution.

Speaking from experience in the real world, these meetings to collaborate in finding the root cause via the 5 Whys end up being one man/woman show with the facilitator having the answers to all the questions without getting any external feedback. It is human nature to want to jump to conclusions or answer the question themselves before even allowing others to respond. We can’t help ourselves…we’re all a bunch of know-it-alls that are WAY smarter than the person sitting next to us! Because of the way ‘why’ makes us feel, we want to shut down and tend to neglect and ignore the human factor in processes. Most of the time, we never even get down to the fifth ‘why’, or the root cause. Unless there is an amazingly patient and adept communicator, asking ‘why’ usually results in seeking blame, defensiveness from all involved, and crickets when it comes to actually coming up with a solution.

Since people are the cornerstone of lean construction, every method relies on creating rapport and trusting, open relationships. When individuals on a team are defensive and standoffish, they aren’t able to come together to strategize. Defensive people look out for themselves, rather than trying to work collaboratively. Innovation and the concept of lean is based on a safe, inviting environment where ideas and constructive criticism are fostered. Use of the word ‘why’ defies this logic and is inherently accusatory.

I have two young sons and a baby girl. I practice these techniques on my sons all the time. For example, I asked my son (who is 5 years old), “Why didn’t you clean up your room?” Instead of getting a response, my sensitive son immediately ran, hid in his bed, and started crying 😭. After allowing him some time to recoup, I recalibrated my question and asked him again. This time I asked, “How are we supposed to read a book if your room is messy?” His answer was, “I don’t know." I asked again, "How are we supposed to sit in the chair with all these toys on it?" His answer was, "Maybe I'll clean up so we have a place to sit.” My response- "Sounds good buddy." 😏 If you’re not buying this psychological premise, just try it on your own child (if you don’t have any, please DON’T find a random one to use this on).

That’s why the 5 Whys need to really be the 5 QCs. The 5 Questions, Calibrated…also refers to quality control. But…

What do you think? How does this make you feel? What about this is important to you? How can I help to make the lean construction environment better for all of us? How should we move forward? see what I’m doing here, right? 😂

Keep moving forward



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