When faced with problems, people usually react in one of three ways. The first is they confront it. Head on, they plan and strategize. The second is they quietly push it aside and hope it goes away on its own or wait for others to solve it for them. The third is they run away from it completely.
Though history and logic tell us that only the first way is guaranteed to make the problem go away, many people still resort to either the second or third. Why is that? More often than not, it's because of fear of the problem.
This article isn't about the entire problem-solving process but instead, it's about what you can do as the first step: identify the problem. Of course, there are several ways to go about doing this but one proven method is to ask why three times.
The Ask Why Three Times strategy is a simple but effective problem-solving technique to get to the root of a problem. Once you successfully identify the real reason, only then can you be able to focus your time and energy on solving it.
If you accidentally trip over a rug in your living room and spill some coffee, do you only clean up the coffee spill? Of course not. You also identify why you tripped in the first place and fix the rug.
Here are some scenarios to illustrate.
You’re a blogger but you're unable to post articles consistently.
Q: Why are you unable to post consistently?
A: I don’t seem to have the time to write blog posts.
Q: Why don’t you seem to have the time to write blog posts?
A: I have a lot of things to do.
Q: Why do you have a lot of things to do, are they all important?
A: I have a lot of things to do not just for myself or my family but because many people ask me for favors and I say yes to them.
And just like that, you discover that if you stop saying "yes" to others, you may be able to make some time for yourself and what you want to do.
Now, this can, of course, also go off in a different direction. You may find that the reason you are unable to post articles regularly is because your goal is to post every single day. Maybe this schedule is unrealistic for you so instead, you should aim to post less frequently.
Your business sells a product but recently, you’ve been getting a lot of return requests.
Q: Why are you getting a lot of return requests?
A: The customers say the products aren’t good quality.
Q: Why are the customers saying the products aren’t good quality?
A: The products break after use a few times of use.
Q: Why do the products break after a few times?
A: Either the product really isn’t good, only the material isn’t good, or perhaps you recently switched suppliers to save costs.
Again, this scenario could also go off in another direction; however, notice how asking why three times would help you eliminate the wrong reasons until you're left with the right and final one.
This strategy can also be applied to habit formation.
You can’t seem to develop exercising as a habit.
Q: Why are you unable to exercise regularly?
A: I tried to exercise before but I stopped.
Q: Why did you stop?
A: Because none of the exercises I tried before worked.
Q: Why did you stop before any of the exercises started working?
A: I didn’t feel motivated to keep going because I wasn’t seeing any results.
As you can see in this example, you'll need a constant source of motivation even without seeing results just yet. Or, you can also try out a different kind of exercise until you find the one that you enjoy doing. From here, you can then form and adjust your plan of action towards solving the main issue.
One of the more beneficial aspects of this strategy is it forces you to first think of your problem as a whole. As you progress to the second and third "why," you slowly eliminate the unimportant and irrelevant "causes" and instead, filter what you should really be addressing.
Some research shows that companies have even taken this strategy further to asking why five times, such as that in the 1950s when Taiichi Ohno was in charge of the Toyota Motor Company Production System. However, no matter if it's five, three, or even only two times, the purpose of this strategy is to ask why until you've discovered the root cause.
Problem-solving can be infinitely easier and faster once you identify the main cause. To ask why at least three times is a simple yet effective way of doing so.