The best way to solve a problem is to identify and tackle the root cause.

It starts by understanding the complexities of an issue, and knowing the various factors at play. From there, you can address problems from angles that might not immediately seem obvious.

That is exactly what Sakichi Toyoda did. He introduced a framework for thinking in his company, allowing Toyota Industries to constantly identify areas of improvement. It was here at Toyota where the idea was perfected and popularised.

One of the fathers of the Japanese industrial revolution, Sakichi Toyoda used this framework — now dubbed the Toyota Method — to make rapid improvements with his firm. While its competitors faltered, Toyota Industries prospered. Today, this idea has been ingrained deeply into the DNA of Toyota and is taught to executives worldwide.

Asking Enough Questions

The method is simple: unearth the cause of each problem by asking ‘why’ five times.

Finding out how things work is something that we’ve always done. As infants, we learn that crying gets us attention. As children, we learn that pushing an object moves it away from us. As teenagers, we learn that not handing up our assignments promptly gets us into trouble with our teachers.

‘Why’ is a question that comes instinctively to us although we don’t voice out our curiosity. The simple tweak the Toyota Method makes here is asking ‘why’ consecutively. Save for parents who have to deal with incessant questions from their curious kids, asking ‘why’ often makes troubleshooting easier.

By repeating ‘why’ five times, the nature of the problem becomes clearer.

Proximate And Root Causes

In the course of this questioning, many causes will appear. The key is knowing which cause is proximate and which is a root cause.

For instance, someone might ask: “Why am I constantly tired?” There could be many good reasons ranging from a lack of quality sleep and health problems all the way to having too much work to complete. However, these could all be proximate causes, with the true reason being something else altogether.

More likely than not, the root cause could lie closer to an inability to set boundaries — being unable to stop taking on a heavier workload than you can healthily manage. It’s an answer that one is unlikely to come up with within the first few instances of asking ‘why’, but could well hold the key to understanding the true cause-and-effect nature of your behaviour.

It’s worth noting that Toyota applied this method and often focused on processes that are not working well or do not exist. Focusing on such aspects are certainly more helpful than being fixated on more proximate causes: someone suffering from chronic fatigue would be able to do something with a root cause as opposed to being just disgruntled that he just can’t sleep well.

Applied correctly, the right questions can have powerful results. This framework of questioning processes helped Toyota to constantly refine their mode of operation and thrive till this day.

Investigate The Issue

Thinking clearly begins with investigating the issue. Turning it into a habit will give us a distinct advantage.

We must rekindle the curiosity that lay within us as children and go about satisfying that curiosity in an orderly manner. As we go about unravelling the root cause of an issue, we will inevitably get answers. Which answers we choose to use is dependent on our situation and judgement.

“Anything perceived has a cause. All conclusions have premises. All effects have causes. All actions have motives.”  — Arthur Schopenhauer

The Toyota Method: A Quick Primer On How To Think More Critically