The key to innovation lies in the problem and not the ideas. In the Lean Manufacturing world, and one of the reasons why companies which live by production systems similar to TPS are successful, is that they systematically use problem solving tools such as the 8-D, the 7-Steps or the 5-Why in order to improve their processes and products. In the scope of innovation, the later is perhaps the most versatile of the tools in that it forces you to ask “Why?” (to the previous Why) multiple times until the problem is narrowed down to a potential root cause. Narrowing the problem down to the root cause allows you to work with only a small set of feasible solutions that can truly address the bigger problem.

Taking a real life (embarrassing) example that most of us have experienced (ok, I’ll admit… not most, but many of us.): Locking our keys in the car!

That in itself is a broad problem, but there may be numerous reasons or combinations of reasons could cause this problem, and for everybody it is a different set of circumstances that will cause it. Things ranging from a phone call at the wrong moment, the radio being on, a beautiful person walking by (yes, we are all guilty of wandering eyes), a malfunctioning door lock, a crying child… and the list can continue to grow… can lead to the problem. It is also true that for each individual the corrective action that will eventually need to take place will be different, and it does not make sense to correct every possible cause when in reality only one or two circumstances will lead to it.

So here is an example to illustrate the 5-why strategy to find the real problem that caused the keys from being locked in the car, and how an individual would use this technique to prevent it from happening again:

Initial Problem: Keys locked in the car

Why (1)?: I was distracted.

Why (2)?: I was talking to a friend on the phone

Why (3)? I was talking on the phone while driving.

Why (4)? I answered the phone.

Why (5)? The phone rang.

The real root cause to the problem of locking the door with the keys in the car was that the phone rang. The solution to the initial problem will be to find ways of keeping the phone from ringing. In essence this is the real problem that needs to be solved. And just to put forth the few ideas that I think can solve it…

1) get rid of the phone.

2) turn the phone off when getting in the car

3) turn the ringer off when getting in the car.

Now, had we tried to find solutions to the initial and broad problem of locking the keys in the car, we may have generated a gigantic list of feasible ideas that would not have effectively solved the problem. For example:

1) get rid of the car

2) don’t drive

3) Remove the locks from the doors

4) tie the keys to my finger with a string

5) hire someone to remain in the car 24/7.

It goes without saying that the key to solving a problem lies in phrasing it correctly. In the case of the locked key the real problem that needed addressing was “How do we keep the phone from ringing while driving?”

The 5-Why tool is a valuable tool that can also be used to define an innovation challenge. By defining the problem correctly, your team will be able to formulate the best ideas to address it.

Part II