Drive Continuous Improvement With The Power of WHY?

Peter Johnson

The Power of WhyOur company recently reiterated a standing challenge to all employees, to find new, innovative ways to drive continuous improvement in everything we do.

The challenge prompted me to share a link to a visually compelling Slideshare by Bill DeRouchey titled “Power of Why”, as well as a few thoughts of my own on the subject.

Throughout my career, the need to design communications, processes, tools, deliverables, plans, objectives, KPIs/MBOs, etc., has been a constant; and the ability and necessity to ask “Why” has been a powerful tool for me, to make sure I know where I am going, before I start the journey.

In a past life, I was exposed to the “5 Whys”, a problem solving technique that is part of the Toyota Production System methodology, used to identify the root cause of issues. The idea was originally conceived to help drive quality control in manufacturing and business operations, and I believe the simple example below from Mind Tools helps illustrate the basic point.

  • Why is our client, ABC Co., unhappy?  Because we didn’t meet our delivery schedule.
  • Why were we unable to meet the agreed-upon delivery?  The job took much longer than we thought it would.
  • Why did it take so much longer?  Because we underestimated the complexity of the job.
  • Why did we underestimate the complexity of the job?  Because we made a quick estimate of the time needed to complete it, and didn’t list the individual stages needed to complete the project.
  • Why didn’t we do this?  Because we were running behind on other projects…. >> We clearly need to review and improve our time estimation and specification procedures.

Besides operations and manufacturing, I have also seen variations of the “Why” drill down techniques used within other buzzword programs like Business Reengineering, Change Management, Continuous Improvement, or Strategy development.

Ultimately though, its all about getting to the root of your Objectives (or issues), and then you can drill into the “Why do I/we/group/org/company do…XYZ?”

Frequently, its because “XYZ is what we have always done” but if we all understand and agree on what we are trying to ultimately do or achieve (Objective), then drilling down into “Why we do what we currently do”, or “Why we think we should do XYZ”, starts to enable everyone to develop their own clarity.

If you take the basic premise and let your imagination wander into your own area of work, I am sure you will find both reflective and forward looking potential applications:


  • Why are our current priorities or KPI’s set the way they are?
  • Why did we design a communication, product, KPI, process, etc. the way we did?
  • Why are we exceeding our XYZ goals, but not meeting our ABC goals?
  • Why does PQR take up XX% of my work time each week?
  • Etc.

Forward looking > start with a question, then drill down with “Why”

  • What KPIs should we set for next year?  Why?
  • How should we design this communication, product, KPI, process, etc.?  Why?
  • What do we need to do to ensure we meet our goals for the year?  Why (for each recommendation)?
  • How should I be focusing my time at work each day?  Why?
  • Etc.

Whether its 3, 5 or 10 times we ask the question, simply starting the sequence of “Whys” can help us better understand why we do what we do, the way we do it, and/or if there are maybe alternatives or opportunities for improvement.

When we were 3 years old, we used to ask “Why?” all the time, and probably drove our parents crazy.  Now that we are all grown up though (sort of), we frequently have developed or “learned” our own answers (maybe someone sprayed us when we reached for the banana), and have less inclination, or possibly even an aversion to challenging the status quo and asking “Why?”  In order to drive change and innovation though, we need to shake these inclinations or inhibitions, and carry on with our continuous improvement process.

Finally, let me acknowledge that Bill DeRouchey created his Slideshare presentation on the “Power of Why” for a design audience.  But don’t worry;  in our own way, we are all designers (of our own careers and lives, communications with others, goals and plans, etc.); and I believe the message is relevant for all of us, regardless of our job.