Drilling Deep With The 5 Whys

The 5 Whys is a common talked about problem solving method that is taught.   The quick explanation is to keep asking why until you get to the root cause.  It seems simple and straight forward, right?

Then when it is tried people start to see it isn’t as easy as it may seem.  The hardest part people have is knowing when to stop asking why.  Five id just a suggestion to drive home the point to dig deep.

A rule of thumb I like to use, is to keep asking why until the conversation gets uncomfortable.  This isn’t easy because the other person may get upset with not knowing the answer and start to get upset with you or you may have to start asking tough questions that cross into uncharted waters.

Why do I do this?  Because that is the point where the real learning starts to take place for the person asking the questions AND the person trying to answer the questions.

If the person knows the answer right off the top of their head, that seems to superficial and could have or should have been fixed already.  That doesn’t seem like a root cause (although it could be).  Digging to a point where the conversation gets uncomfortable surfaces deep rooted issues that can drive bigger and/or better change.

Learning is the key to problem solving so don’t stop asking why until you have gotten deep enough to cause some level of uncomfortableness.  That is where you will find the root cause.

Posted on October 21, 2011, in Problem Solving, Tools and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. The 5 Whys is a great tool if used correctly. One of the most common problems I have seen whe people use this tool is that they come to the table with pre-conceived ideas of what the root cause is. This causes them to answer the “why” in a way that will obviously come out to their pre-determined conclusion. This is obviously counterproductive and makes answering the 5 whys a needless exercise.

    Another issue that often comes up in that we need to answer the “why” questions intelligently and clearly with good logic. Otherwise, the root cause will still be evasive and the group ends up in left field in relation to understanding the true situation.

    I have seen situations where these two mistakes have been made which causes the countermeasure activity to also be useless and frustrating to those who are still stuck with undesirable situation.

  2. Matt,

    The 5 Why Root Cause Analysis is a great tool that’s easy to understand. As you note, it’s harder to apply than some people acknowledge. People can get the wrong root cause for a variety of reasons including pre-conceived perceptions of what caused the issue (as Dale already noted). A lot of people can develop a sense for when they have found a true root cause with practice. The uncomfortable feeling you mention sounds like a sign. What’s most important is to get to the point where the countermeasures are effective. Treating a superficial cause often leads to ineffective countermeasures. Good post!

    By the way, I posted a series of 3 articles on 5-Why’s a while ago. Here is the first (7 Steps to 5 Why): http://wp.me/pZiRD-j2

    Best regards,

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