44 degrees of why

I was listening to Tim Ferriss's podcast this week (Nick Kokonas — How to Apply World-Class Creativity to Business, Art, and Life (#341)) and there was a passage with Nick Kokonas that reminded me of some of my favorite days at work. In this passage, he's talking about starting the restaurant Alinea with Grant Achatz:

[75:17, Nick Kokonas] We started talking. We didn't even know where to start, right? He said, "Well, I know one thing. I want to have wooden tables. I want to have bare wood tables." I said, "Why?" He said, "Well why do fancy restaurants have white tablecloths? They literally call it a white tablecloth restaurant if it's fancy. Why?" I couldn't really – I came up with dumb answers. "It feels good. It absorbs a spill," or whatever it may be. He said, "No, it's because the table underneath is a piece of shit." He goes, "And you know that. As soon as you say it, everyone goes, 'Oh, yeah, I knew that.' You've been at weddings and stuff where you feel under the table and you're like, 'Oh, it's plywood.' But if you go to a really fancy restaurant and you feel under the table, guess what? Also plywood, just a little thicker."

He's like, "When you rest your arms on the table, even if it doesn't come forefront in your mind, you subconsciously know that they're fooling you." He's like, "Why can't we have black, beautiful tables? It'll show the food great. It'll show the plateware great." Then I went like, "Well, yeah, but the health department in Chicago doesn't let you put silverware right on the table." If you put a glass there, the condensation will form a little ring, and then you have a wear issue. But you'll save $70,000 a year in laundering linens. We started going, "Well how do we solve the water problem? Well, you create a fridge that's just above the dew point, 44 degrees in the winter, maybe a little warmer in the summer because it's higher humidity in Chicago, and you just get rid of ice."

You have these cascading decisions that become part of the art of the place. Some of them start from a really practical thing like, "Hey, we want to have a quality table." Then all of a sudden you need a little pillow that the silverware goes on that Martin designed, because we didn't want to have placemats; that's too cheap. All of a sudden, we had to design a silverware holder. It just became this cascade of interesting little art projects that were there for good reasons, and really created a unique atmosphere.

Why. Why why why why why.

It's a fantastic question. An annoying question. It's a kind of luxury to be able to ask "Why?" Who can ask "Why?" People with power, and people with time.

And people who aren't just satisfied that things are working, but why they are working, people who will keep digging into a problem after the people with power have asked them to stop and when it's time to leave or sleep or whatever.

When I talk to people about moving from the prototype phase of a project to the production phase of a project, I always urge them to throw away the prototype. Break it, burn it, boot it—whatever you do, don't try to turn the prototype into the production article. It is full of bad assumptions you had to make on the fly to get the prototype to just work, and those assumptions are long since forgotten, if you ever even noticed them as you made them, and sometime down the road those assumptions will make you Hurt.

There are layers of assumptions in any system. There are the assumptions you yourself made. Assumptions your team made to compromise. Assumptions your company made ten years ago on a completely different project that were written into Rules or Laws or Best Practices and, subsequently, the rationale was lost. And maybe the need for the rules is no longer necessary. Or not. It's not clear. But nobody will abandon that particular cargo cult, because what if it's working.

Only asking why can expose that. And asking why can take you past the long-accepted solution and closer to the primitive variables that you really need to solve for. On those days at work when I get to dig into some mess and ask why, why, why, stripping away the layers of junk until only the core remains—those are good, satisfying days. It's a tremendous amount of fun to break things down, see how they work, and make them work better, and include only the things in the final design that have a reason to be there.

That's why I liked listening to that interview. That part about wanting to get rid of the tablecloth and then digging into the chain of things that would happen, and then making solutions for them... yeah, that's systems engineering, being able to model how changes propagate through the system, being able to judge the functional from the junk.

The missing referent in the "we" in the quoted text is Grant Achatz. He appears in season two of Chef's Table on Netflix. Watch it— even more whys, and more irreverent ways to solve the underlying problems exposed by them.

See also: Taiichi Ohno, "Ask 'why' five times about every matter". Also: Richard Feynman: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, BBC Two - Horizon (1981-11-23). (If you're not in the UK, watch it here.)

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