Asking WHY isn’t just child’s play

Why do kids enjoy asking the question “why” so many times?? Even though it can get very tiring or annoying for the parents or teachers, they are using an effective tool from engineering and manufacturing.  Including rocket science!  It will be powerful for you as a current or future rocket scientist too.  It has been for me.

“5 whys” is one of the tools used in 6 Sigma to arrive at the real root cause of a problem, issue, or failure. Although you can trace it back to almost any kid with their parent, it is formally traced back to Sakichi Toyoda and the Toyota Production System (TPS).  This grew into the more widely known Lean Manufacturing movement.

If you are passionate about always finding a better way to do things, you will enjoy learning about 6 Sigma. It is a set of tools and processes for formal process improvement, and it is used often in aerospace companies. There are certifications that you can get, referred to as “belts,” which also trace back to the Asian heritage of the tool.

Whenever there is a major failure or incident with an aerospace program, chances are strong that the management and engineering team on that program is going through a 5 Why exercise.  When you write out the question and all answers in a graphical format it is called a Fishbone diagram. 

As you probably guessed by now, I’m telling you about this because it can also be a very effective tool for you to use in your own career or job search.  Haven’t found a job yet?  Start at the end point and work backwards.  Have you received any offers and didn’t take them?  Have you not received any offers?  Start asking why (or why not) and keep going.

This is very difficult, if not impossible, to do by yourself and be objective, honest, and fully aware about it.  Do your best, and then use some proven techniques to involve others.  One is to use Tip #9 from my book, Find a Mentor.  Easier said than done?  Well, that’s where my book will help you!

More effective, and more common in industry, is to do the exercise in a group setting with a trained facilitator. (Enter the certified 6 Sigma expert.)  I’ll bet there are people in your LinkedIn network that have a similar problem/issue and would take you up on a group activity.  They just may be waiting for someone like you with a vision and initiative to get it started!  And what better excuse (reason) to reach out to a 6 Sigma expert for a new connection…who knows where that might lead.  (Maybe one of these certifications is your ticket into the aerospace career of your dreams.)

One time when I used the 5 Whys technique in my career was when a formal budget review didn’t go as well as it should have.  (EVM for those of you who like acronyms.)  Yes, I admit it–I’ve had some occasions when I did the proverbial “crash and burn.”

Working with my manager, we went through this exercise to understand what happened and how we could ensure better results going forward.  And that’s exactly what happened.  I’ll also admit that if I had gone through this exercise by myself it would not have been as effective.  There wouldn’t have been anyone else to be accountable to.  And let’s face it–the pressure to stop asking hard questions and find the easy, convenient answer (like blaming someone else or forces beyond your control) is incredibly tempting.  Then coming up with an action plan after you’ve answered “why” enough times also benefits immensely from others’ inputs.

The 5 Whys technique is powerful and common to use when things have gone horribly wrong.  But it’s also equally powerful to use when things have gone RIGHT.  When people (and teams) are successful, we can risk arrogance or hubris by giving credit where it isn’t due.  Or worse, not even bothering to reflect on what happened and appreciating every milestone as an opportunity for learning.

Maybe you aren’t willing to throw paper airplanes and helicopters off a hotel balcony like a kid (and like me).  But asking WHY 5 times is another powerful tool for you to use in your aerospace career.  No matter what flight phase you may be in today.


About Brett Rocket Scientist

Brett creates artful work in aerospace and innovation. He is currently a project manager, author, and speaker. Sometimes he is still an engineer and music composer.

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