The “Why” Behind the “What”

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Mark Twain

In the course of our work life, we learn things. We start a new job, we learn how to do it. We frequently get told “what” to do without learning the “why.” After awhile, the familiarity of doing the “what” becomes comfortable. We forget about searching for the “why.”

That’s why the process of asking “why” five times is such a great lean technique. It suggests that we step back and examine the things we know to be true and see if the “why” is the same as it once was.

I heard a story. Newspapers in England were made with odd-sized, large paper. A new publisher assumed that the paper size was used because it was cheaper.

Upon examination, he learned the bigger paper was more expensive. He couldn’t get anybody to tell him why they used the more expensive paper. He researched it.

It turns out that many years earlier, the government had taxed newspapers on the number of pages they printed. Thus, it made sense to use larger pages in order to print papers with fewer pages. It saved on taxes.

Eventually, the tax law changed. But, the newspapers went on using the more expensive paper. It was an ingrained habit. It cost a good deal more. No one bothered to ask “why.”

While I hope we don’t have those kinds of things in abundance, I wonder if there aren’t a few.

Take a look around. Examine what we do. Ask yourself: “If we were starting over today, would we do it that way?”

Ask yourself: “Do I know the ‘why’ behind the ‘what?’”

It may lead you to a fresh outlook.

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PalletOne CEO Howe Wallace
PalletOne Inc.
Company President, Howe Q. Wallace

Since 2005, he has been sharing his thoughts on the organization, leadership, and communication in an online daily note to teammates called Daily with HQ.


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