Innovate Like a Three Year Old – One Little Question that Can Increase the Number of New Product Opportunities You Uncover.

Innovate Like a Three Year Old – One Little Question that Can Increase the Number of New Product Opportunities You Uncover.

In a previous post, I wrote about some of the innovation lessons we learned while we were in kindergarten. That included focusing on one task at a time and eliminating multi-tasking by assigning each team member to only a limited number of projects. But there’s more childhood can teach us about innovation.

Who hasn’t watched a frustrated parent in the grocery store trying to explain why they can’t have something to their three year old. Every response is met with the question why? Of course, most three year olds can play this game all day so it usually ends up with Mom or Dad finally resorting to the ubiquitous “Because I said so.” While that one little question can bring a parent to their knees, it can also be just what you need to find new opportunities.


Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota developed the concept of five whys. In what eventually became part of Toyota’s Lean Production System, the question “Why?” is asked five times to highlight both the root cause of the problem and its solution.

The Wikipedia entry for the 5 Whys Concept gives the following example:

My car will not start. (the problem)
1. Why? – The battery is dead.
2. Why? – The alternator is not functioning.
3. Why? – The alternator belt has broken.
4. Why? – The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and has never been replaced.
5. Why? – I have not been maintaining my car according to the recommended service schedule.

The fifth why shows the root cause which is that the car was not maintained according to the schedule. The obvious solution is to maintain the car correctly. But as a company looking for new product opportunities what can you learn from this example?

You may learn that asking why five times is not enough. At Guided Innovation, our working definition for innovation is:

The organization-wide passion and process for finding and profitably serving unmet customer needs.

By stopping at the fifth why, we’ve left important information out of the picture. Information that might help to uncover the customers unmet needs.

Instead, following the lead of our indefatigable 3 year old, we ask,”Why didn’t you maintain the car according to the recommended service schedule?” The idea of a root cause is a relative term. Relative to the box we draw around the system. If we draw the box around the car, we have the root cause unearthed in question number 5. But by asking why again, we include the customer and their busy life within the system, and gain a wider perspective.

So here are three potential answers to why the customer may not have been doing scheduled maintenance:

1. Because I didn’t know it needed to be done. Or I forgot
2. Because I don’t want to spend the money on maintenance.
3. Because I don’t have the time.

Let’s take a look at each and some of the ways they could create a new basis for competition.

1. Because I didn’t know it needed to be done. Or I forgot. They say ignorance is no defense, but it’s often the case. Customers don’t have the time, or don’t want to be bothered with reading manuals or having to memorize maintenance schedules. And why should they, life is busy enough without having to become an auto mechanic.

From a new product perspective, this customer might benefit from something as simple as pre-programmed reminder that alerts them when the car is approaching each maintenance interval. That could go as far as what GM’s Onstar has done to take engine data and then email a monthly status summary (e.g. 15% of oil life remaining – time to schedule service).

2. Because I don’t want to spend the money on maintenance. Some customers are looking for predictability. They want to pay once and then not have to worry about it after that.

Several brands have found that there are customers who don’t want to pay for maintenance every time an oil change is required, but are willing to pay more for a car that comes with a warranty that includes scheduled maintenance. They prefer to pay one price either up front or in a monthly lease and never have to pay for service again throughout the warranty period.

3. Because I don’t have the time. Anything you can do to save customers time can be a new basis for competition. This is not a customer who would be attracted by a pre-paid maintenance program because they would never have the time to get the service done. Alternatively, this customer might be attracted to a car that offered 5 years or 100,000 miles of driving with no scheduled service required. Until that is technically feasible, they might be an ideal candidate for a system where a maintenance company dispatches service people to their home or office to perform routine maintenance at scheduled intervals. This could even be tied into the system above where Onstar data would assist in the scheduling.

Should you continue to ask why again and again? Clearly, you don’t want to take it to the point of fatigue. However, it makes sense to continue as long as you are unearthing answers that could lead you in the development of a better solution.

The More Impact Bottom Line

Asking why five times can help you get valuable information about the problems your customer is having. But continue past five whys and you can start to understand their unmet needs and begin to develop the potential solutions that you could provide.

Author: Michael Dalton

Mike Dalton's Guided Innovation Group, works with companies that want more impact form new product innovation in less time. Clients credit Mike with helping them double new product profits and cut time to market by more than half. He's also the author of the book Simplifying Innovation: Doubling speed to market and new product profits - with your existing resources. You can download free sample chapters at Simplifying Innovation. Prior to starting the Guided Innovation Group, he had 24 years of experience growing new and existing businesses as a general management and business development executive for the industrial polymer division of the multi-billion dollar S.C. Johnson & Son family of companies. He holds an MBA in marketing & finance from the University of Chicago and a chemical engineering, gas, and energy technology degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology. You can learn more about getting more impact from your innovation by visiting Guided Innovation where they offer an array of reports and other free innovation resources.

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