The Most Annoying Question on Earth

April 5, 2018
Why? Why? Why? Just because. Maybe we should be asking, ‘Why?’ more often.


One of my grandsons learned to ask, “Why?” soon after he learned to say, “No!” and well before “Please.” He is a sweet boy whom I love dearly, but, frankly, I find his single-word reply to whatever answer I might give annoying. Too often, I end up replying, as my father before me, “Just because.”

Why? Because “Why?” is both inquisitive and challenging. It asks to know more and it accuses its target of holding back, of giving an insufficient answer.

Why is the topic of this blog. Why? Because “Why?” is simply the most important question that can be asked. Why? Because it is both inquisitive and challenging. Because it is unsatisfied. Because it demands thought and commitment to an informed opinion.

Why answer “Why?” when “How?” is much easier. After all, “How?” deals in facts, not opinions. Augmenting a thorough “How?” answer with a “What?” answer makes for consistent bids, consistent deliverables and iron-clad specifications. We, the experts, know that if you will just do this with that at a low price that we will be happy and you will get paid.

“Why?” asks some control system integrator engineer who has obviously not matured beyond the age of 4, and whose experience is not with your process, but from other industries entirely. “Why do that?” they ask.

To which the response is too often: “Just because… That’s how we do it here.” True, it is easy to waste time explaining something to someone who knows much less. But it is also true that game-changing improvements come from individuals unencumbered by detailed knowledge.

Why do I ask “Why?” First, to satisfy my insatiable desire to learn. Second, because I have met many other engineers honest enough to respond, “I don’t know.” As often as not, my contribution is only to question, not to offer an answer. Third, because I have seen results from my asking. Clients reduce cost, eliminate waste, improve quality or deliver faster.

Why? Because I was either smart enough or dumb enough—take your pick—to ask, “Why?” Perhaps my grandson will be an engineer someday.

Tim Matheny is president of ECS Solutions Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). He is also the author of a paper on the subject of model-based control, presented to the ISA Food and Pharmaceutical Industry Division in 2014. To obtain a copy of Tim’s paper, or for more information about ECS Solutions, visit the company’s profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.