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The 5 Whys – how to solve problems by identifying the root cause

The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge. This simple, yet profound quote from the late American novelist Thomas Berger illustrates the power of questions – questions can make the invisible visible and the unknown known. Just as a coin has two sides, questions and answers are also intimately linked; understanding the nature of the question often lead us in the direction of the answer. It is humanity’s ability and willingness to probe deeper – to keep asking questions – that has led to incredible discoveries about our own nature and the complexities of our world and universe.

Asking questions in a directed, systematic way can also be an effective and practical method for resolving problems or inefficiencies in the workplace. The 5 Whys technique is one simple approach that is gaining popularity. Originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda at the Toyota Motor Corporation many years ago, this problem-solving technique quickly became an integral part of Toyota’s production process, which is renowned for its successful performance improvement activities such as Kaizen, Lean and Six Sigma.

The main purpose of the 5 Whys technique is to identify the root cause – or set of root causes – that is at the heart of a given problem. As its name suggests, this technique is an iterative process of asking why a particular symptom is present until one has revealed a total of five underlying causes. At this point, a practical root cause of the issue should be identified. Here is one example:

Problem: Our hotel is receiving bad reviews on TripAdvisor this week.

1. Why are we receiving bad reviews on TripAdvisor this week?
Because guests are complaining about the rooms not being clean.

2. Why are the rooms not clean?
Because the housekeeping staff is not cleaning properly.

3. Why is the housekeeping staff not cleaning properly?
Because they do not have proper cleaning supplies.

4. Why do they not have proper cleaning supplies?
Because the housekeeping manager didn’t order new cleaning supplies last week.

5. Why didn’t the housekeeping manager order new cleaning supplies last week?
Because the housekeeping manager was on vacation.

In this example, it would be difficult to come to a conclusion about why the hotel was receiving bad reviews until one had a clearer understanding of what ultimately led to the bad reviews in the first place. The root cause in this example was the unavailability of the person in charge of ordering the cleaning supplies. Perhaps the hotel’s management next time around would be more mindful about this particular issue so that someone else could take on this task in his or her place. That would solve this particular issue, all other things being equal.

Of course, in the real world, finding an isolated root cause is not always so simple. Everything is connected, and there may be multiple root causes, interdependencies or complexities involved. Also, the 5 Whys exercise could lead to different identified symptoms or root causes, depending on who is involved in the process or when the process is initiated. New information could change the assumptions about the circumstance and may also lead to different root causes.

The key is to create a cultural atmosphere where questions are valued just as much as answers. Questions that reveal the nature of things often lead to better answers – answers that more effectively address the issues facing the organization. By having a better understanding of the dynamics between cause and effect, one is better equipped to make decisions that promote flow, while reduce unnecessary waste and friction.

Technical Project Manager at VG. @ChristianAglen.


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