Tag Archives: kaizen

Why Ask?

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Questioning led Newton to his numerous wondrous discoveries

One day, a young man named Isaac Newton was laying on the grass underneath an apple tree, when suddenly an apple fell to the ground next to him.  Looking at the apple, his mind wondered: why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground? Why should it not go sideways, or upwards, but directly to the center of the earth?

But how many of us, given that same condition, would question the way the apple falls towards the ground? How many of us question the way things are in our daily lives and wonder if the same things can be done better?

Asking questions is an underrated skill: we think that if we ask a lot of questions, we are not intelligent and do not understand enough. I have experienced myself when somebody asked a question in the middle of a lecture and I secretly deemed those people as weak and not capable enough to think on their own.  A professor in my operation management class last semester however, made me realize something else. He persistently encouraged us to ask questions in the beginning of every class about anything that we were unclear of or anything about the subject we were learning, to the extent that he would punish us with a “pop quiz” if we didn’t come up with a question to ask him. At first I was annoyed by my professor because we simply didn’t have any questions to ask, which implied we had already understood most of the things being taught in the class. Wasn’t that supposed to be good news for my professor?

ImageWell… You have no questions? At all? 

At the same time, the absence of questions in the class also made me wonder why wasn’t anyone asking a question? Why has it become so difficult to produce one? As I got more used to the habit of asking questions in the class, my perception towards questioning changed: asking a question does not merely imply a lack of understanding, rather it shows our intelligence, as it requires critical thinking and curiosity to know more. I began to analyze the materials taught with a critical mind and produce questions for my professor. His explanation in turns helped me to gain a deeper understanding about the subject and discover more insights. I finally realized that asking a question is a step towards understanding and improving the things around us.

Questioning can help us understand what’s happening around us.  Take Sir Isaac Newton, for example. By asking why the apple falls towards the ground, he was set to discover and look deeply into why things are the way they are. This eventually led him to discover the law of gravity, which led him and the world to numerous further findings and breakthroughs. (Although we didn’t really know whether or not the apple incident actually happened like it was told, the falling apple did lead the notion of gravitation into Newton’s mind.) Whether we are given new theories and concepts in school, working with a certain process in the office, or adjusting to a new culture, we can all benefit from asking why things are the way they are. ,After investigating for the answer, we might gain a deeper understanding and more insights, allowing us to perform better at school, office, or at anything that we are working on right now.

When I first learned how to cook, I always follow what my mom does: preheat the pan before adding oil, but I never asked and knew what it was for. The result? My dish was never great, they cooked unevenly, and sometimes they still stuck to the pan. I finally did a research on the internet myself and found out that I didn’t preheat the pan long enough. From that explanation, I also understand why preheating the pan prevents food from sticking and found a better method of doing it, allowing me to produce better dishes. Had I not asked why preheating prevents food from sticking to the pan, I wouldn’t have discovered a better method of preheating the pan and cooked a better dish.

As I’ve experienced above myself, getting the answer to our questions is not just about finding the missing pieces of our understanding, it’s also about improving . Questions are critical towards improvement because they make us challenge the current assumption and think of new ways of doing things. When we ask if our method is good enough or if there’s any way we can better our work, we are setting ourselves on the path towards improvements, even when things are deemed acceptable.

A noteworthy example is Toyota, one of the world’s biggest carmakers, earning top marks from experts and customers alike for quality and innovation. Their success can be attributed to one of its philosophy called “Kaizen”, which means continuous improvement. Kaizen requires all team members in all parts of the organization to continuously look for ways to improve operations. And their number one tool to do that is questioning – what other better methods they can use, how to implement changes, why things don’t work as expected. Questioning prompts them to analyze what they need to improve and enables them to identify problems — the real cause of problems that hinder them from improving. Finding the real cause of a problem will help them to develop methods that can tackle that problem and improve operations.

In fact, Toyota employees are encouraged to use a method of questioning called the ‘5 Whys’ which is a famous technique for problem analysis, enabling people to get to the root of a problem quickly. For example, in my cooking problem, I would first ask “why is my food sticking to the pan?”. After getting the answer that I didn’t preheat the pan enough, then I would ask “why didn’t I preheat the pan?”, which would lead to the next question “why didn’t I know that I have to preheat the pan?” (because I did not pay attention to preparing my utensils before cooking).

The “5 Whys” method had helped me to find the real cause of my problem: I didn’t understand how my utensils work and overlook the small, but important details. Problems often arise with a ‘hidden’ cause, which makes a lot of people fail to analyze the causes of a problem and arrive at the wrong corrective action. By repeatedly asking “why”, we can separate the symptoms from the causes of a problem and arrive at the root-cause of the problem.

Clearly questions can benefit us a lot by helping us to identify the cause of a problem and resolve it. So, how do we start to ask questions again? First, we have to stop thinking that we know enough, or at least assuming that what we know is right. We often take action according to our assumptions but when those mislead us, we end up looking foolish instead of smart. We can start with confirming our knowledge first to avoid making further mistakes, then asking other questions.  Only when we admit that we don’t have the answers to everything, then we can start asking questions.

For some of us, the real difficulty lies in the fear that asking questions makes us look stupid and that’s why we need to let go the fear of looking unsure. In fact, other people might have the same questions but lack the courage to express them. Don’t be afraid to go against the crowd – if no one asks because of the general silence, everyone will remain uncertain and in doubt. So when you don’t understand something, ask questions and be the minority who chose to understand more.  

Of course, those steps are easier said than done. Borrowing my professor’s words: “It is painful, but very fruitful.” Letting go of our ego, fear, and wish to blend into the crowd requires a change in personality. But it is an attitude that we can always train and hone, and when we do, we will contribute not just to our personal success but also to society.

So, you might want to ask yourself: have you been cooking your omelet properly? Or, is there any other way you can make it better?

 Note : I wrote this article for Youngandbright.net, republished. The photo above is not mine.