If your mind is more subtle than a car factory: 2 Human Ways to Use the 5 Whys

Observe the production floor without preconceptions.

That was Toyota problem solver Taiichi Ohno’s caveat back when he revolutionized auto quality in the 1950’s by teaching workers to Ask “why” five times about every matter. Toyota’s method for drilling down to the “root” of a problem works MAGIC on personal issues IF we:

  • apply it to our own thinking rather than to external circumstances

(Otherwise it’s easy to spiral into bitterness over what we can’t control: “Because he’s a jerk… because his mother spoiled him because HER father was mean because HE grew up mining coal BECAUSE of the industrialization of pastoral America!”)

  • and side-step our preconceived notions, as Mr. Ohno hinted.

It almost feels insulting to question the obvious” way of thinking/feeling, but I find the results are super powerful when I apply the 5 Whys to the “production floor” of my life — that is, my mind — in these two ways:

1. Name an extremely painful thought and ask Why does this bother me?

The most extreme pain — one we’ll all face at some time — illustrates this best:

  • Painful thought — “My loved one’s dying.”
  • Why does this bother me? — “I’m sad.”

There’s absolutely a “clean pain” associated with loss.  You must go into the grief. But if the pain feels “dirty” then keep going:

  • Why?

If you’re sad simply and profoundly because you will miss the person and their presence in this world, then likely you are suffering clean pain. Grieve.

But most of us will often find some dirty pain lurking — you’ll know it by its icky feeling.  There are an infinite number of possible stories that can cause dirty pain:

> No one will understand me the way my loved one has.
> Our relationship has not been ideal, and now it will never get better.
> Without my loved one, I have nowhere to turn if my life falls apart.
> No one will ever love me like s/he has.
> I’ll never be happy again.

  • If this newly uncovered thought feels like a “root cause” — as Toyota calls it — then you can stop here, look at the idea without preconceptions, and ask yourself if it’s really true.

Can you think of three cases in which it might not be true?

  • Or you can keep going and ask yourself “Why?” a few more times. Either way, you’ll likely be surprised by yourself. Therein lies the power. Maybe that’s why Taiichi Ohno saw this questioning process as an opportunity, saying “Having no problems is the biggest problem of all.”

2. Think of a desire or goal; ask “Why do I want this?”

Keep drilling down.  Here’s a common example:

  • Desire: I want to earn more money.
  • Why do I want that? Possible answers:

>So I can go on a great vacation.

>So I can retire early.

>So I can buy better clothes, a better house, a better car, or better whatever.

>So I’ll be safe from being a bag lady once and for all.

  • If you uncover something super-charged (like the last statement), you might want to question its’ implicit assumptions (like name 3 reasons you would not be likely to end up as a bag lady)  OR you could keep going: Why do I want THAT? Could be:

>Because I hate my job.

>Because this town makes me unhappy.

>To impress friends.

>To safely fit all the kids and their friends in the car with seat belts AND the dog PLUS enough cup holders for everyone (but the dog. Well maybe him too.).

If you end up with happy thoughts like that last one (dogs drinking out of  cup holders is ALWAYS a happy thought!) — cool. If you end up with unhappy thoughts — that’s fine too. You can always choose to investigate a painful thought and see what about it may not be true, or you can stop here. It’s just helpful to really understand your own motivation. It becomes more likely you’ll actually BE motivated (and able) to live how you want.

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