The power of inquiry

You probably heard of a 5 Whys method that was first used by the Toyota Motors Corporation to identify the root problems that they would encounter in the production line. The idea is pretty simple yet extremely effective: by repeating why five times, the nature of the issue as well as the solution for it becomes obvious. An example of the use of this method looks like this:

  1. "Why did the robot stop?" The circuit has overloaded, causing a fuse to blow.
  2. "Why is the circuit overloaded?" There was insufficient lubrication on the bearings, so they locked up.
  3. "Why was there insufficient lubrication on the bearings?" The oil pump on the robot is not circulating sufficient oil.
  4. "Why is the pump not circulating sufficient oil?" The pump intake is clogged with metal shavings.
  5. "Why is the intake clogged with metal shavings?" Because there is no filter on the pump1.

The 5 Whys method was tried of course in other fields than manufacturing, as you can imagine, as this line of questioning, in a broader scope, is intended for analysing the threads, finding possible contradictions and assisting in coming to agreement and conclusions.
There is another type of a technique that uses inquiry intensely, called appreciative inquiry2. In brief, it's a technique that uses questions to focus on strengths, being those personal or organizational. So imagine a question like »When you were at your best, what contributed to it?«. By analysing the factors that helped you achieve success, it stimulates you to reproduce similar situation in the future and focus on what you do well, rather than falling into the mode of where are the problems and whose fault it was when something bad happened. Of course, there is much more to the whole appreciative inquiry concept than just this simplification.

The fact that these methods are listed in management articles and books raises the whole topic of why is it important for a manager and a leader to ask the right questions? It seems clear – it’s the way forward for any improvements and for any development. Assuming the leader is ready to listen. But that’s a topic of another story. So, are you asking the right questions at work?


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