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5 Whys usage – the root cause investigation

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5 Whys usage – the root cause investigation

One of the problems many businesses face is that of getting to the root of a particular problem. Although most businesses have a decent investigatory branch when it comes to dealing with simple problems, dealing with more complex problems, especially inter-personal problems that may involve potential litigation, requires a more thorough approach. By asking a series of questions, each one branched from the previous one, it is believed that a root cause can be determined and from there a solution determined.

Use of the “5 Why” When It Comes to Investigating Problems

The 5 Whys Process is so called because it usually takes no more than five questions in order to arrive at the root cause of the problem, and from that to figure out how to solve the process so that it should not come up again any time soon. An important phrase to remember is that “people don’t fail; processes do”; even though a person may have made the final decision that created the problem and possibly made it worse, it was because the person was following a process that led him to those decisions. The 5 Whys helps to create a better process and therefore fewer mistakes.

Why The 5 Whys Needs to be Considered

Let’s say that you have a simple marketing issue: You have been running a social media campaign, but the campaign is not working as well as it should. You are trying to sell tickets to an action-adventure movie but the tickets are not moving as fast as they should be. At that point, the consultant asks a few basic questions:

  • Why are the tickets not selling? We are not connecting to the right audience.
  • Why are we not connecting? Looking at the advertising, it looks as if the movie is a romantic comedy.
  • Why was it edited as a romantic comedy? Someone in marketing thought that it would sell better if the romance was played up.
  • Why was the romance played up? The marketer does well when it comes to dealing with romances, and not so well with action-adventure movies.
  • Why was that particular marketer assigned to the movie? The marketing department decided to give him a chance and see what he would do with it.

In this case, the problem was not necessarily that someone was placed in charge of something that he should not have been, but that no precautions were put into place. It was assumed that because the person had established himself in one area, he should do fine in a related area. The person is not at fault, but the process: Most businesses make it a point that their personnel should be experienced in more areas than just their own specific areas in order as not only a way to expand the horizons of the employee and to find out if he will do well in other areas, but so that the employee can cover other areas as needed. It is actually a decent idea.

However, the process was at fault. The marketer should not have been put in charge without some form of coverage himself; he should have been either been put under someone with more experience in the field for a few projects, or he should at least have been assigned a mentor. That is, while it was acknowledged that he was pretty good at marketing one kind of movie, he needed to either have been shown how to market another kind of movie, or have at least been given access to someone who could guide him through it. There should have been a process in place in order to allow for that, at least informally.

When it comes down to it, a lot of employee errors come down to there being problems with the process involved. In most cases, the problem is that there is no process; the situation is either a brand new one that popped up or there was never a reason to put a applicable process up in the first place. The classic example is having a supply person who kept all of the inventory stocked and did this because that person knew the rhythm of the business well enough that he knew when to order parts and when to lay off ordering. However, when something takes that person out of the picture, such as illness, death, or even retirement, the inventory invariably goes out of whack.

The purpose of the 5 Whys is to ascertain if there was a process. If there is then this allows a manager to better fine tune the system so that errors are further limited in the future. If there is no process, then the questions serve to show how a process can be set up to deal with similar situations in the future. By asking the right questions, it is believed that a decent process can be created, and that the process can be fine tuned later on as needed. It is just a matter of determining the best questions to be asked, and it is those questions that can make or break things later on.

Finding the Best Person to Ask the 5 Whys

Obviously the best person to ask those questions is someone who is both experienced and knowledgeable in the field in question. they are going to be aware of some of the flaws in the situation as well as what could have done to deal with the problem. More to the point, he may be able to solve the problem with fewer than five questions, and come up with a solution that works well enough to become part of the handbook. They may also be able to determine if the situation is untenable enough to warrant eliminating the situation altogether, such a product that requires more money to create than it makes.

However, it can also help to have someone less experienced look at the situation. Sometimes an experienced person may be too jaded to the situation in order to ask the right questions. A fresh person is not afraid to ask what would be considered “stupid questions”; sometimes the solution is obvious to someone who is unfamiliar to the situation. It is almost amusing how often an obvious solution is ignored because the problem is so ingrained into the situation that it gets ignored by all but those who are strangers to it. Those new eyes can see the problem and ask all of the right questions in order to properly deal with the problem.

Regardless of who you have asking the questions, it helps to make sure that the person has a certain degree of impunity as well as authority to get the job done. The person needs have the backing of authority in order to ask all of the right people the right questions: In some cases questions need to be asked of personnel and some people do not want them asked; without authority that person will be effectively blocked and therefore the investigation will be fruitless. At the same time they need some ability to take whatever actions are needed in order to solve the problem. Regardless of the relevant experience of the person who ends up having to ask the 5 Whys, he just needs to have some authority to back him up.

Different People, Different Solutions

So, let us return to the inventory problem. The stockperson has just retired, and the inventory is out of whack. One of the managers steps up and starts asking questions, and one set of those questions may be:

  • Why is the inventory system in chaos? Because the person in charge of this area retired.
  • Why did his retirement cause problems? Because he relied on his memory and ordered stock as he thought was necessary.
  • Why did we not replace him? Because he was doing such a great job that it was not necessary.
  • How can we we replace him? He can be replaced with an electronic system.
  • Why would that benefit us? We would be able to better track inventory, eliminating both waste and theft.

This line of reasoning leads to the installation of an electronic system that is tied to the cash registers; none of the items in the store can leave it until their tags are properly removed or erased. However, it is possible that someone else would ask a different series of questions, and lead to the inventory of the store being done by hand, or a system where items are restocked only when the store runs out of that particular item. All of these different solutions can work depending on the business in question; it all depends on the line of questions that were used to arrive at the answer.

This kind of reasoning can be applied to any kind of situation, as long as there is a process in place, or a process is being debated. This can even be used pro-actively, when there are questions as to whether or not a given procedure really is the best procedure for a given situation. In this case the 5 Whys can be applied just as well as they can be to a real problem in order to determine if there are any better ways of dealing with the situation. By careful application, this process of asking questions can make any process run smoother and more efficiently.

It needs to be noted that this process itself should not be limited to merely five questions. Sometimes the process only takes three questions, while sometimes it can take seven or more. The number of questions is not in and of itself important; the process of asking questions that arrive at an answer is. This note needs to be made as too many people get hung up on the wrong things; the number of questions should not be an issue. As long as a solution is arrived at is all that matters with this process, and hopefully one that solves the problem.

Other Applications of the 5 Whys

Although initially developed by Sakichi Toyoda of Toyota Motors Corporation as a means of advancing its manufacturing methodologies, this philosophy has gone far behind that. Even in its most basic form, it has been used to troubleshoot procedures, and to determine which procedure will work best in a given situation. When used pro-actively, it can pinpoint holes in a plan, as well as identify any potential spending problems. A small business just starting up can use this system to look at its handbook and identify problems before they even coalesce.

Richard Sempler, of Semco, has used it at a “3 Why” version (three questions instead of five) as a means to make decisions and set goals; by asking the right questions one can fine tune a goal and better define the steps to accomplish that. It can also help to determine not only if more information is needed for a decision, but also to see how valid it is. When it comes to goals and decisions, the process, or a version of it, can put the decision on firmer footing as well as determine how possible a goal is. The former makes life simpler, the latter helps to eliminate waste of time money, and energy.

Criticisms of the 5 Whys

Like any process, the 5 Whys has received some criticism. Most of this criticism has come from Teruyuki Minoura, the former managing director of Toyota’s global purchasing. His basic complaint is that it is too simple of a tool to investigate root causes. Hi reasons include that investigators tend to stop at symptoms rather than lower-level root causes, while others are limited to finding solutions that they already know about; they are stop at obvious issues and are limited to their experience. There is also sometimes a lack of support when it comes to helping the investigator look for the right questions.

A major issue is that the results are not repeatable; different people could use different sets of 5 Whys to come up with different causes for the same problem. There is also the problem that investigators tend to stop at a single root cause; even in situations where there are multiple issues that need to be dealt with, too many investigations stop looking when they find a single cause. On-the-spot verification of each step should be required in order to limit the effects of purely deductive reasoning; just because someone logics that something is happening doe not mean that is what is really going on. Also, finding multiple causes must be encouraged in order to completely eliminate problem. Any solution arrived at by this process must be questioned when it was solved through straight logic rather on-the-spot investigation and should be challenged when it arrives at a single solution.

The Advantages of Using the 5 Whys

Ultimately, when integrated into an investigatory process, the 5 Whys offers a way to find a working solution to most problems. Although there are some issues that need to be kept in mind, overall this process offers a way to not only solve any procedural issue, but can also help streamline processes. As long as you remember that “people don’t fail, processes do” the 5 Whys should make solving problems easier, ranging from personal problems to company issues.