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Lean Leaders Need to Ask Why

Lean Leaders Need to Ask Why

This is the second in a series of three reflections on “Go see. Ask why. Show respect.” Read part one here.


A few years ago, a vice president at a service company that I had just started consulting with called me in great excitement. He had been leading a team in a value stream mapping exercise for the first time. As part of mapping the flow they went to see the actual situation, went to gemba, and to his surprise the process was very different then he expected. He wondered why. Reflecting on that, he realized that having worked his way up in the company, he had assumed that little had changed. After all, the organization chart was the same and the formal workflow on paper was the same.

Going to gemba and actually seeing the differences in job roles and workflow, the vice president was now asking himself two questions:

1. Why did the formal organization description stay static while the organization actually changed?

2. Why did I assume that nothing had changed?

Lean practitioners in both manufacturing and service organizations are familiar with the 5 Whys—the practice of asking why, over and over again, at least five times, in order to “drill down” to the root cause of a problem. The goal is to address the problem at the root cause instead of addressing a “symptom.” This is important, but there is an even more important reason for lean leaders to go to the gemba and question what they are seeing: It provides an opportunity to question their assumptions, which often are based on outdated or superficial knowledge.

Let’s think more about the connection between asking why and experience. Anyone who has gone for a walk with a small child will be familiar with the constant stream of questions that start with “why?”: Why are there cracks in the sidewalk? Why is the sky blue? Why is the grass green? And on, and on, and on…. Small children don’t have much experience in the world so in order to gain information and knowledge, they look around and ask a constant stream of questions. As children get older, and gain more experience with how the world works, they ask fewer questions. They begin to rely on knowledge they have gained and past experiences to make assumptions about how things work and how things are in the world: “I’m going to be hungry later on if I don’t eat breakfast because my body needs food for fuel every few hours.”

As adults, we tend to ask fewer questions, and make many broad assumptions based on our accumulated knowledge and past experiences, such as “all people with the same job title have the same job function and would complete the work process the same way.” The more knowledge and experience we think we have, the more prone we are to assume that we know. And if we are sure we know, then we don’t need to ask why.

The problem is, that even with advanced knowledge and years of experience, like the vice president described above, our assumptions are often wrong. In his book, Workplace Management, Taiichi Ohno reminds us that although we rely on knowledge and experience and assume we are right 100% of the time, in reality, we are not:

“When I was in middle school in the old system, we studied the Chinese classics. And during this class we learned from the Analects of Confucius. In these writings Confucius says ‘the wise mend their ways’ and ‘the wise should not hesitate to correct themselves’…I think these words in the Analects mean that even the wise man is not right ten out of ten times…a regular person may get five things right and five things wrong…and when you know you are wrong you should mend your ways and correct yourself….”

Going to gemba, seeing the actual specific situation for yourself, and asking why, at least five times, is the best countermeasure to our human propensity to assume that we are right 100% of the time based on previous knowledge and experience. And this is especially important for successful leaders who may have years of knowledge and experience. Too often the reality is that as they moved up in the organization, they became more and more removed from the actual work being done, the processes by which the work is done, and the people who do the work.

Lean leaders are expected to be coaches and help guide people toward learning how to improve processes to achieve exceptional results. One critical step for improving something is to understand the current condition, which allows you to compare the current condition to the desired future state. Leaders who want to help others improve must have the capacity to improve. This starts with seeing the reality at the gemba and understanding the gaps by asking why.

If leaders rely on outdated past experience and superficial knowledge, they will accept superficial change and be ineffective as leaders. Going and seeing and asking why incessantly is critical to effective leadership. Pretend you are a child seeing the organization for the very first time—and ask WHY!

Lean Leadership Institute (LLI) helps organizations develop lean leaders at all levels in their organization through the use of innovative online education through the use of coaches. Learn more about LLI’s green belt and yellow belt courses at the IndustryWeek Store. Sign up for our newsletter ( and take part in our free webinars.

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