January 2nd, 2014 | Leadership

Guest Post by Mark Miller

I’ve written numerous times over the last two years about my fascination with questions. I believe they are among the most under-rated tools at a leaders’ disposal. “Why?” is an amazing word and the beginning of countless outstanding questions.

Most of us started asking “Why?” as a small child. We didn’t just want the answers; we wanted to know the underlying reason(s). Why was, and still is, a profound question to stimulate learning. It can also become the catalyst for reflection and self-evaluation.

Here are several scenarios in which “Why?” might be a great question to ask. I’ve included an example with each one. Please don’t let these limit your creativity.

When you want to learn something. Why did we _______________?

When you want someone else to learn something. Why do you think we did what we did?

When you want to highlight an apparent inconsistency. Why would we do this for one department and do that for another?

When you want to introduce an idea. Why couldn’t we ________________?

When you want to challenge the status quo. Why have we always done it like that?

When you want to encourage a decision. Why wouldn’t we make a decision today?

When you want to discern someone else’s motives or rationale. Why did you _______________?

When you want to discern the root cause of a problem. My friends in the world of quality management suggest asking “Why?” five times!

Here’s how that works:

Ask someone: Why isn’t the machine working? (That’s one.)

Their response: The belt broke.

Is that the root cause of the problem? Probably not. Ask why again…

Why did the belt break? (That’s two.)

Response: The machine wasn’t calibrated properly?

You’re probably getting closer, but is that the root cause of the problem? Maybe, maybe not. Try asking again…

Why wasn’t the machine calibrated properly? (That’s three.)

Response: The technician wasn’t trained on how to do it properly.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Should we stop here? Let’s ask a couple of more times to see what we might learn.

Why wasn’t the technician trained properly? (That’s four.)

Response: We cut our training and maintenance budget.

Why? (That’s five.)

Response: Corporate pays for repairs, we have to pay for training and maintenance. We can reduce our costs by actually letting the machines break down. And, if they break down often enough, corporate will buy us a new one.

Did you see that coming? If you and I tried to solve for any of the first four answers, we might have worked on new belts, tools, training methods and other such interventions. However, discovering the root cause helps us know where the real problem lies. That’s just one more way “Why?” can add tremendous value.

If “Why?” is not an active part of your leadership vocabulary, why not give it a try?

Mark Miller is the V.P. Training and Development at Chick-fil-A and a best-selling author and communicator.  You can follow Mark on his Blog:  GreatLeadersServe

Mark’s latest book:



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