Sakichi Toyoda was born the son of a poor carpenter.

But by the time he passed away, Toyoda was referred to as the ‘King of Japanese Inventors’. In his lifetime, he invented numerous weaving devices, including Japan’s first automatic power loom. These inventions would lead the way in the modernisation of Japan as his countrymen came around to the power of automation.

As Toyoda became more successful, he would travel around the world to Europe and the United States to learn more about the manufacturing process. His passion for invention would remain until his death in 1930.

Today, Sakichi Toyoda’s name lives on through the Toyota Motor Corporation, which is the largest automotive manufacturer in the world.

The Habit Of Asking Questions

Sakichi Toyoda accomplished much as an inventor, and was well respected for being one of the pioneers in Japan’s first industrial revolution. Yet, his chief contribution to Toyota’s longevity wasn’t anything physical, but rather one of his philosophies.

Toyoda had a habit of asking questions. Like any inventor worth his salt, he would be inquisitive about every process. He wouldn’t stop until he came to an answer that was satisfactory.

That transferred over to the processes used at Toyota manufacturing plants. “Observe the production floor without preconceptions,” Toyoda would advise. “Ask ‘why’ five times about every matter.”

It’s not immediately clear how this method can be applied, but let’s take a look at what he meant. Taiichi Ohno, one of Toyota’s former top executives cites the example of how the 5 whys can solve the problem of a malfunctioning welding robot:

1. Why did the robot stop? The circuit has overloaded, causing a fuse to blow.

2. Why is the circuit overloaded? There was insufficient lubrication on the bearings, so they locked up.

3. Why was there insufficient lubrication on the bearings? The oil pump on the robot is not circulating sufficient oil.

4. Why is the pump not circulating sufficient oil? The pump intake is clogged with metal shavings.

5. Why is the intake clogged with metal shavings? Because there is no filter on the pump.

What was once an observation has become a problem that is actionable. A robot that has stopped working can now be made to work again by adding a filter on the pump.

Proximate And Root Causes

The Toyota Method helps us to look beyond the superficial. It helps us dive deep into the root causes, instead of examining the proximate causes. Doing so allows cause and effect to be established. From this point, solutions can be devised to solve a specific problem and prevent its recurrence.

That said, it’s not always easy to employ this method of questioning. We can never be sure whether have arrived at a root or proximate cause. How deep should we dig?

Nobody can tell for sure, but there are good benchmarks. The most apparent marker is when one has identified an imperfect process or poor behaviour. This tends to repeat itself, and can yield great rewards if they are identified and corrected early. Left alone, undesirable processes and behaviours snowball over time and can become burdensome in everyday life.

But more importantly, we must be willing to suppress our tendencies to jump at conclusions. While rapid fight-or-flight responses served us well in the past, they cause us to make bad decisions.

The Toyota Method may not be sufficient for dealing with complicated problems, but the inherent beauty is its simplicity. Anyone can apply the method daily and build a habit of looking beyond proximate causes.

Question Everything

Sakichi Toyoda didn’t come up with the Toyota Method to solve a corporate problem. Instead, it came naturally from his inquisitive mind.

Curiosity comes naturally to children because they are in awe and wonderment at what goes on around them. They ask an endless amount of questions, often to the dismay of their shorthanded parents.

We must rekindle that same curiosity that lay within us as children and go about satisfying that curiosity in an orderly manner. It doesn’t matter that we don’t get the answers we seek. The sheer act of questioning makes all the difference.

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

The Toyota Method: A Shortcut For Identifying And Solving Your Problems