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WHY? The two meanings of WHY?

Everyone loves that question. It is supposed to be profound.

Kids love asking WHY?

Mum, why is the sky blue?
Mum, why does the moon change shape?
Mum, why do I have to go to school?

Why do snails have no legs?

Mum, why is Granny so fat?

Why, why, why?

It drives mum crazy!

This fascination with the question WHY? has created a famous Japanese management theory called "5Why?"

The "5Why?" technique was originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda and was later used within Toyota Motor Corporation during the evolution of their manufacturing methodologies.

It is a critical component of problem solving and is delivered as part of the induction into Toyota.
The architect of the Toyota Production System, Taiichi Ohno, described the 5 Why method as, quote:

"the basis of Toyota's scientific approach . . . by repeating why five times, the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear."

The tool has seen widespread use beyond Toyota, and is now used within Kaizen, lean manufacturing, and Six Sigma.

That is all very nice.... BUT.......

Houston, we have a problem!

The question "Why?" is ambiguous (at least in English). It has two very different meanings.


An ambiguous word is "any word that can be properly interpreted in more than one way."
All ambiguous words are potentially a cause of confusion and error.
Therefore, asking "Why?", can be the cause of confusion and error!
It needs to be made clear and distinct in order to be employed properly.

The two meanings of WHY?

Please note carefully the following distinction:

  1. "Why?" might mean: For what purpose?
  2. "Why?" might mean: For what causes?

Why?" meaning: For what purpose?

This is when "why" is signifying a goal, intent, or objective. This meaning has a future tense orientation.
The why question could (should) be reformulated as: "For what purpose,.......?"
For example if you asked me "Why are you writing a blog today?"
That might mean "For what purpose are you writing a blog today?"
My answer will be a future based reply, relating to my intentions and goals: I might say:

"I am writing a blog in order to help my search engine optimisation rankings,

So that Google will place our site on page one,
So that people will see us more readily,
So that they might choose to come on the course,
So that I might make a sale,
So that I might earn money!"

Use "For what purpose?" instead of "Why?"

But the same question WHY? might mean: "For what reasons?", what antecedent causes? (historic tense)

This meaning is asking for causes, triggers, previous happenings, that have led up to the event in question.
This question could be (should be) reformulated to read "What causes led to..........?"

For example if you asked me "Why are you writing a blog today?"

That might mean "What causes have led you to write a blog today?

I might say:
"Because in 1997 I started a business, and in 1999, x happened, and in 2000 Y happened. In 2003, the other thing happened and in 2005 this happened..... and that meant that this happened and so today I have to write more blogs!"

You can see that there is a big difference in meaning between the questions:

  1. For what purpose? Future
  2. For what causes? Past

They lead to two completely different sets of information.
Unfortunately both sets are indicated by the same question: why?
This fact introduces confusion.

Conclusion: Don't ask why?

If you do, you will have a 50% chance of being misunderstood.
Instead, ask the more precise form of the question: Ask "For what purpose?" (If that is what you mean), or ask "For what causes?" (if that is what you need to know).

Don't answer the question WHY
Don't answer the question WHY? from anyone, without first clarifying the question.

If you do, you will have a 50% chance of answering the wrong form of the question.

If they ask "WHY did you do that?" before you answer, ask them: "Do you mean "For what purpose", or "For what causes?"

Notice that 60% of the people you ask this returning question will be unsure of what they DID mean by their question, (which itself is illuminating- because many people use the Why? question as a non thinking parrot would repeat the word; without an understanding its denotation).

Final note

  1. Generally "Purpose why" questions pertain to human action.
  2. "Causes why" questions pertain to actions of inanimate matter.

This means: Human action is generally purposeful:
i.e. peoples actions are to be explained by their intentions, goals and purposes.

The actions of inanimate matter are NOT purposeful, but rather, causal.
Inanimate matter can be explained only by reference to antecedent causes.

The inanimate universe is not operating towards a purpose, but it is causal.
(You might want to spend the rest of the week pondering the philosophic implications of this last statement).

It is confusion and an error to mix these things up

ie. Forgetting that human action is purposeful (goal directed) will cause error.
Thinking that inanimate mater is purposeful (with a goal) will cause confusion.
The killer tsunami did not have a purpose (to punish the evil doers!)
The tsunami did have causes, (geothermal, tectonic, gravitational, tidal forces)


There are two distinct meanings to the question "WHY?"

  1. For what purpose?
  2. For what causes?

To avoid confusion and error; ask the more precise form of the question

Human action is purposeful: inanimate matter is causal.

For more information about communication skills training visit the Corporate Coach Group website.

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