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Innovate like a three year old: Constantly asking why

toy carIn a previous post about Innovation Lessons from Childhood, I wrote about some of the new product innovation lessons we learned while we were in kindergarten. That included focusing on one task at a time and eliminating multi-tasking. But there’s more childhood can teach us about innovation.

Want more from your new product launches-Three mistakes to avoidOne little question, a favorite of children the world over, can increase the number of new product opportunities you uncover. Who hasn’t watched a frustrated parent in the grocery store trying to explain why they can’t have something to their three year old. Every response is met with the question why? Of course, most three year olds can play this game all day so it usually ends up with Mom or Dad finally resorting to the ubiquitous “Because I said so.” While that one little question can bring a parent to their knees, it can also be just what you need to find new opportunities.

Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota developed the concept of five whys. In what eventually became part of Toyota’s Lean Production System, the question “Why?” is asked five times to highlight both the root cause of the problem and its solution.

The Wikipedia entry for the 5 Whys Concept gives the following example:

My car will not start. (the problem)

1. Why? – The battery is dead.

2. Why? – The alternator is not functioning.

3. Why? – The alternator belt has broken.

4. Why? – The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and has never been replaced.

5. Why? – I have not been maintaining my car according to the recommended service schedule.

The fifth why shows the root cause which is that the car was not maintained according to the schedule. The obvious solution is to maintain the car correctly. But as a company looking for new product opportunities what can you learn from this example?

You may learn that asking why five times is not enough. At Guided Innovation, our working definition for innovation is:

The organization-wide passion and process for finding and profitably serving unmet customer needs.

By stopping at the fifth why, we’ve left important information out of the picture. Information that might help to uncover the customers unmet needs.

Instead, following the lead of our indefatigable 3 year old, we ask,”Why didn’t you maintain the car according to the recommended service schedule?” The idea of a root cause is a relative term. Relative to the box we draw around the system. If we draw the box around the car, we have the root cause unearthed in question number 5. But by asking why again, we include the customer and their busy life within the system, and gain a wider perspective.

So here are three potential answers to why the customer may not have been doing scheduled maintenance:

1. Because I didn’t know it needed to be done. Or I forgot

2. Because I don’t want to spend the money on maintenance.

3. Because I don’t have the time.

Let’s take a look at each and some of the ways they could create a new basis for competition.

1. Because I didn’t know it needed to be done. Or I forgot. They say ignorance is no defense, but it’s often the case. Customers don’t have the time, or don’t want to be bothered with reading manuals or having to memorize maintenance schedules. And why should they, life is busy enough without having to become an auto mechanic.

From a new product perspective, this customer might benefit from something as simple as pre-programmed reminder that alerts them when the car is approaching each maintenance interval. That could go as far as what GM’s Onstar has done to take engine data and then email a monthly status summary (e.g. 15% of oil life remaining – time to schedule service).

2. Because I don’t want to spend the money on maintenance. Some customers are looking for predictability. They want to pay once and then not have to worry about it after that.

Several brands have found that there are customers who don’t want to pay for maintenance every time an oil change is required, but are willing to pay more for a car that comes with a warranty that includes scheduled maintenance. They prefer to pay one price either up front or in a monthly lease and never have to pay for service again throughout the warranty period.

3. Because I don’t have the time. Anything you can do to save customers time can be a new basis for competition. This is not a customer who would be attracted by a pre-paid maintenance program because they would never have the time to get the service done. Alternatively, this customer might be attracted to a car that offered 5 years or 100,000 miles of driving with no scheduled service required. Until that is technically feasible, they might be an ideal candidate for a system where a maintenance company dispatches service people to their home or office to perform routine maintenance at scheduled intervals. This could even be tied into the system above where Onstar data would assist in the scheduling.

Should you continue to ask why again and again? Clearly, you don’t want to take it to the point of fatigue. However, it makes sense to continue as long as you are unearthing answers that could lead you in the development of a better solution.

The Simple Bottom Line

Asking why five times can help you get valuable information about the problems your customer is having. But continue past five whys and you can start to understand their unmet needs and begin to develop the potential solutions that you could provide.

What do you think? Have you used this method before and what kind of results have you seen? I’d love to hear from you.

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Michael March 2, 2010, 9:21 am

    I agree with your criticism but I do not think that your thinking is innovative. When I learned Five Why, I also learned that 5 is an average – sometimes you get to the root in 3 or 4 and sometimes it takes 6 or 7. Anyone that literally has been stopping at 5, did not learn the technique properly.

  • Michael A. Dalton March 2, 2010, 10:52 am

    Thanks for pointing that out Michael. Clearly, if you can get to an actionable root cause in less steps you should do it. They key is whether it's actionable from a new product perspective. If not, digging a little further doesn't cost anything 🙂

    I'm happy to admit that I'm only re-purposing Toyota's great idea. Seeing companies integrate these concepts into the front end of new product development to become more innovate themselves – that's the important part to me.

    Best regards,

    Mike

  • Charles Cohon March 2, 2010, 11:56 am

    From "Toyota Production System" by Taiichi Ohno, page 17

    1. Why did the machine stop?

    There was an overload and the fuse blew.

    2. Why was there an overload?

    The bearing was not sufficiently lubricated.

    3. Why was it not lubricated sufficiently?

    The lubrication pump as not pumping sufficiently.

    4. Why was it not pumping sufficiently?

    The shaft of the pump was worn and rattling.

    5. Why was the shaft worn out?

    There was no strainer attached and metal scrap got in.

    Taiicho Ohno also said 5W=1H, Five Whys equals one How. Five is of course not a magic number, but by saying to ask why five times Ohno makes the point that asking why once or twice is too shallow an investigation.

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