In Part I of this blog entry I illustrated how the 5-why method helps to narrow a broad problem down to its root cause. This root cause becomes the problem definition.

Industry leaders know that the key to their success is to effectively identify market needs before their competitors do. To do this, they can ill afford to devote their valuable resources on a broad problem (i.e.: How can we do business in the Asian market) because doing so means that the answer will take longer to identify and validate. Instead, they focus on the same question and narrow it down to a more targeted question: “What products can we develop for the Chinese software market?”

So going back to the Locked Key scenario in Part I, over the years, auto manufacturers have realized that locked keys presented opportunities. In a likely scenario of 5-Why problem-solving an auto manufacturer may have approached the innovation behind one of the many locked-key prevention methods in this way:

Initial Problem: People get locked out of their cars.

Why (1)?: People lock their doors without having the keys in their possession.

Why (2)?: People exit the vehicle without removing the key from the ignition.

Why (3)? People are distracted

Why (4)? There are many factors such as radios, phones, children, rolled down windows, open sunroofs, lights, wipers, purses, and briefcases that a driver must interact with when getting ready to exit the car.

Why (5)? Humans try to multi-task, even though they can only do one function at a time?

The 5th question becomes the key to generating the right question because it is clear that people lock their keys because of “function overload”. A properly phrased challenge would be: “How can we prevent drivers from locking their keys if we cannot count on them to consciously remove the keys from the car?” This question is key in that there is a need to prevent drivers from locking their keys in the car, but also a realization that in the solution you cannot count on the driver to consciously participate in removing the keys.

I chose this example because it wasn’t until this last decade that a real fool-proof solution to the locked key dilemma was devised even though for the better part of the last 3 decades auto manufacturers innovated nifty mechanical schemes to force drivers into un-natural motions before locking their doors, or intricate electronic schemes to unlock the doors (some from outer space!... via satellite.) …here is a small sampling of those solutions:

1) Lifting on the door handle while depressing the button
2) Locking the doors only with the remote
3) Forcing the driver to lock the door with the key
4) Providing a call center that you could call from a phone to have a customer service rep send a satellite signal back to the car to unlock it
5) Providing a numeric combination keypad on the door.

These were each good solutions, but what is evident is that the question of how to prevent distracted drivers form locking the keys was addressed many times and in different ways and with obvious financial and technological constraints.

In the case of the locked key, the innovation which is now the trend in the auto market, but most likely not the final solution in a long list of attempts, is the RFID key. This solution allows the car to detect if the key is inside or outside the car before locking it. “Keyless-Entry”, and its close cousin “Keyless-Go” have virtually eliminated locked key situation. ( …unless, of-course, the driver decides to throw the key back through the open sunroof and into the vehicle after it has been locked.)

In conclusion, the real “Key” to innovation is in the problem definition. Don’t lock your organization out of effective innovation by ignoring the root problems.

Part I