Thursday, February 9, 2012

The 5 Whys

Why?Why?Why? is the repetitive question that every parent hears from their children growing up, when they think of something that peaks their curiosity. This is of course is expected as they begin to grow and learn about the World around them and have more questions than answers. So interestingly this same activity is actually a good way to approach problems in the adult World as well, especially when looking for answers to important problems.

When a problem exists it can be hard to know where to begin to solve that issue. Sometimes what seems obvious is actually way more complex than it first appeared to be. So before jumping to conclusions and investing time and money in unknowns it is important to look for the root cause of the issue, and address that first. So how might we begin to deconstruct the problem and get closer to the root cause of the issue? There are a few techniques that allow you to do this, including root cause analysis, cause and effect analysis and the 5 whys. Each has technique has its advantages and help get to the root of the problem. The first two are the more powerful forms of the 5 whys technique that really try to solve complex issues. They require more investment of time and gathering data and making statistical analysis. The 5 whys on the other hand, really shines in a more rapid and simple problem solving exercise that might be looking for more of a direction to begin further investigation. The 5 whys is the focus of this post.

First let's look at the technique, well quite simply you ask the question why 5 times to a problem statement and recursively build on the previous answer to ask the next question. This is best explained through an example.

Say for example an worker damages his thumb at work on a conveyor belt, and we want to get to the root cause of the problem. So if we plug that into the 5 whys we might end up with this:

Why did the associate damage his thumb?
Because his thumb got caught in the conveyor.
Why did his thumb get caught in the conveyor?
Because he was chasing his bag, which was on a running conveyor.
Why did he chase his bag?
Because he had placed his bag on the conveyor, which had then started unexpectedly.
Why was his bag on the conveyor?
Because he was using the conveyor as a table.

This example highlights that the problem isn't what might have been assumed at the beginning of the exercise, that maybe the worker was unskilled. Instead it seems the problem could have been avoided by adding a table for the bag to be placed on instead of the conveyor belt.

This technique can be a great way to dive into assumptions and works well in creative brainstorming sessions as it is so quick and aims for rapid answers. It quickly can identify root causes of simple problem statement and engage a questioning activity among team members and clients. It also can help identify relationships between different levels of an issue, without a huge investment in data and statistical analysis that more complex issues require. It can even work well to find out what motivations are involved in new product decisions and brand development. The reasoning can come out by examining the answers to each level of the questions.

When engaging in this activity, it is important to understand that there are 3 essential techniques to making this exercise effective, otherwise the exercise will have more likelihood to investigate symptoms rather than root causes, it can cause limited ability of those involved to cast their minds beyond the current knowledge and it can lack the of facilitation of people to investigate the problem space, so that they can come up with the right questions. So with that in mind these 3 considerations are good to remember to better facilitate the activity.

1. Create an accurate and complete problem statement
2. Be honest in answering the questions
3. A determination to get to the bottom of the problem and solve it.

following these 3 premises will help make the questioning more productive and produce better results, as each member in the team will be proactive in trying to answer and solve the issues at hand. The process itself can also be improved by considering the following.

1. Gather a team refine the problem statement. Once this is done, decide whether or not additional individuals are needed to be included to resolve the problem.

2. Make the first question "why is does this problem exist?" There might be 3 or 4 sensible answers. These should be recorded and investigated.

3. Ask the why question to each question generated in the beginning. Follow up on all plausible answers. Sometimes these may require more than 5 why questions.

4. Among the answers to the last "why" look for systemic causes of the problem. Follow up the after the session with a debriefing and show the results to others to confirm that they see logic in the conclusion.

5. After deciding the probably root cause to the problem, develop appropriate corrective actions to fix the problem. The actions can be undertaken by others but planning and implementation will benefit from team inputs.

The 5 Whys is a powerful and quick technique to use in meetings and brainstorming exercises and can even help you individually think at a more granular level about a particular issue. As long as the technique is used carefully and the results are not necessarily the end of the investigation and expected solution then this can be a great way to get to the bottom of simple issues. So next time a child asks you why about something, remember that this is great way to see the world around you, and encourage them to see how it can lead to results.

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