The Power of Explaining Why – A Funny Example


This sign and picture might be a bit rude, so I saved this for a Saturday.

To me, a very powerful and often unknown principle of the Toyota Production System and Lean is the idea that managers must “explain why” to employees if they give a directive order. I saw this when I visited the NUMMI plant and wrote about how they treated employees like adults by explaining why certain defective parts shouldn't be used rather than just barking orders or relying on formal positional authority.

I've found this to be a very powerful method to use in hospitals — going out of your way and making the extra effort to explain “why?” to employees or even patients and families.

When I was able to visit a hospital in The Netherlands a few weeks back, I was able to spend some time touring Amsterdam with my hosts.

I spotted this sign on a door in an area where there's a lot of partying and late night drinking, apparently (you can tell I was there during daylight hours). It's on a door at the street level, larger picture to follow below:

Here's a larger version of the sign, and it reads:

I wonder if that's more effective than a sign that simply says, “Don't piss here.”???

And… walking to work the other day, from Boston into Cambridge, I saw this gem of a “why?” sign:

Isn't that more effective? By saying “this drains into the River” and having the picture of the fish (who wants to harm fish?), I bet there's far less dumping than if it just said “DO NOT DUMP!!!”

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. My comment on twitter re:explaining why does not always give a good outcome. Firstly I agree that it is extremely important to explain why a decision has been made. The problem occurs when there is differences in opinion. Recently I trained about 80 people in work management. Some of the guys from the shop floor did not agree with the "why" we are doing it. This meant that the to gain compliance we had to lay down the law. Ultimately the majority were on board and the critical mass takes over, but not before some implementation pain.

  2. You make a good point. I agree with you. Explaining "why" alone isn't a secret potion.

    But it's often the missing piece of the puzzle.

    Explaining why treats people like adults and gives you a better chance to just giving directives that "must" be followed because you are the boss.

    You're right, sometimes you DO have to lay down the law. But explaining why (and having a discussion about it, if need be) shows more "respect for people" than just forcing the issue as many leaders would tend to do.

    Does the "difference in opinion" mean the boss isn't right? Or isn't quite right?

    No easy answers. Thanks for sharing your scenario and for commenting/tweeting.

  3. Very funny pictures Mark. Perfect for a relaxed Saturday morning.

    Something about Mark B's comment is gnawing at me. There seems to be several underlying ideas here.

    One idea is that coercion or forcing of employee compliance is at some point necessary to run the business — enough of this Lean stuff about respect for people. Another is that explaining "why" can be done late in the game — after a controversial decision is made — and this will handle any issues. A lot more discussion, with employee participation, is usually needed prior to a decision like the one Mark points to. This kind of organizational process has a longer timeframe than the fish picture above. How you treat people culturally in the Lean organization seems bigger than simply "explaining why" and it has a different timing.

    As we say in the urinalysis lab, "them is me sediments" :-)
    /Dr. Pete

  4. Mark B, it sounds to me like your shop floor people were trying to share some information they felt might help you understand the problem more fully. Thats where listening is really important, so you can work with either the new knowledge to a better solution, or understand what else needs to be explained properly (eg why their concern does not affect the outcome/ why you choose to take this path at this time/ that you accept the risk that worries them).

  5. I wanted to elaborate a bit on "laying down the law." That should be used sparingly, if ever, mainly in cases of non-negotiable safety concerns.

    For example, instead of saying "YOU MUST WEAR GLOVES IN THE LAB" you could explain "You must wear gloves when working in the lab, for your safety to avoid risk of disease." You can "lay down the law" and hold people accountable (wearing gloves is not optional).

    But, as the others said, listening is important. Why don't you want to wear your gloves? Allergy? The lab is too hot? You can then provide latex-free gloves and maybe adjust the temperature.

    But after all of this, not wearing gloves might be grounds for disciplinary action.

    I love the Toyota expression of "lead as if you have no authority." You still HAVE authority, you just have to use it sparingly.


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