The first step of problem-solving – The 5 whys analysis

Darryl Bachmeier
May 15, 2019

Looking for easy problem-solving hacks isn’t always effective. Sometimes it’s necessary to really dive into the details and ponder on the root cause of it.

Luckily, there are a wide range of techniques that contribute to good lean management. In this article, we’ll be discussing the 5 whys technique. And yes, it’s really as simple as it sounds.

The 5 Whys technique is a simple yet effective technique that forces teams to beg the question: “Why did this happen?” It’s commonly used for unexpected events or challenges.

So, who started the 5 whys anyway?

Toyota Motor Corporation happens to be the pioneers of the 5 whys process. The architect of Toyota, Taiichi Ohno used this approach to get his team to ponder on the actual cause of the problem.

Benefits of the 5 whys analysis?

The 5 whys analysis works by team members asking ‘why’ about a particular problem multiple times until they understand the origin of the problem. This is super beneficial when you have a skilled team of diverse operational backgrounds when discussing the problem at hand. As expected, this result in a more informed decision as the team includes people with valued practical experience.

Apart from using this in an organizational environment, this can be applied in our daily lives as well. Particularly when you feel that you are jumping to conclusions, or are stuck in the same repeated behavior. For example, you might be getting late to work every single day, and from here you can start your why analysis in pursuit of the actual reason for your lack of punctuality.

The interesting thing about this process is that the root cause is often something completely different from what the team would have imagined. Situations, where there are technical issues, may find its root cause linked with human-related problems.

Important disclaimers

It is necessary to know that the purpose of this process is not to find someone to blame. Quite often, this healthy exercise can lead to heated arguments between team members as everyone wants to deflect off the responsibility from their shoulders. Creating an environment that normalizes constructive criticism is essential for this analysis to work.

Additionally, the number ‘5’ is flexible, as you can dig deeper as much as you want. Just make sure to not forget to reach a tangible conclusion, and keep the number of reasons to a reasonable number.

An example

Let’s now try understanding this analysis through a practical example.

Imagine you work in an online retail store and consistently get complaints of wrong items getting shipped to the customers.

First why: Identifies the obvious problem and that wrong item are selected from the inventory.

Second why: This happened because there were labelling issues.

Third why: Incorrect labelling was done by the supplier before shipping.

Fourth why: The person responsible for labelling at the supplier’s warehouse applied incorrect labelling.

Fifth why: The labels for various orders are pre-printed, which makes it easy to attach the wrong label to an item

From this simple example, we can see how quickly we reached to the primary cause of the recurring problem. Without this approach, there is a high chance of us blaming our shipping supervisor, instead of recognizing that the problem stems from the supplier. Additionally, the practical conclusions reached here would not have been possible without the involvement of the supplier.

How to use the 5 whys

Here’s a step-by-step approach to using the 5 whys:

  1. Create a team or invite everyone who is impacted by the decision and the ones who can do something about it.

  2. It is always better to designate a team leader. Having a leader helps in facilitating the discussion and ensuring everyone gets a chance to say their part. A leader also plays a big hand in ensuring that the discussion does not get heated.

  3. Now comes the task of jotting down the exact problem. Writing down the issue helps formalize it. This will also allow you to describe the problem more elaborately. Your team should try making sense of why a problem occurred and write down your thoughts. With that being said, don’t hesitate in writing multiple whys if you feel you still have not struck the chord for identifying the actual reason(s). Finally collaborate and communicate with your team so that there is unison, which leads to more focused and constructive discussions.

  4. After the team has collectively recognized the root cause of the problem, start assigning responsibilities to come up with the solutions for the problem. The solutions can also be discussed at the meeting, and its implementation can be designated to the relevant parties.

Here you have it, a simple problem identifying and solving technique that is sure to save you and your company valuable time, effort and money.

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