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The Five Whys: Tackling Problems Properly

In many businesses, there might be a problem that just keeps coming back.

This article originally appeared at Gen-i’

In many businesses, there might be a problem that just keeps coming back. The first time, you might have thought you’d cracked it. But, lo and behold, the following week it reappears in exactly the same way and at exactly the same time. Another solution might put it off for another month, but there it comes again.

The thing here is that, probably, you never really solved the problem in the first place. You cleared up the mess and rearranged some things cosmetically, but the problem never really went away; you never actually tackled the root cause properly.

How might you do that then? How might you prevent a problem from coming up again? Well, firstly, it’s worth recognising that the problem itself is not the only problem: that thing that makes you stumble, that puts the spanner in the works, is really the symptom of a much deeper issue, an issue that causes the obstruction you directly face. This problem is the one you really need to confront to stop the others occurring again.

Solve problems; ask why.

To do that, we can look at the problem solving technique offered by the founder of Toyota, the Japanese industrialist, Sakichi Toyoda. This is the Five Whys – otherwise known as ‘root cause analysis’ – and, honestly, it’s as simple as its name suggests.

When you encounter a problem, ask why it has occurred. You’ll have an answer, but ask again: why is that answer the case? To this question, you’ll have another answer that needs to be challenged in turn. And just keep on asking.

So, imagine, you are being irritable at home. This is your immediate problem.

  • Why is this happening? It might be because you are very stressed.
  • Why are you very stressed? Because you are working too hard.
  • Why are you working too hard? Because your employees at work are not successfully completing the tasks that you have given them. You therefore need to pick up the slack.
  • Why are they not successfully completing their tasks? Because they don’t know how.
  • Why do they not know how? Because they haven’t received the proper training from you.

Ah, there it is!

Counter-measures, not solutions

Having followed the five whys, you’ve found yourself a solid answer, an answer so deeply located that you have never properly acknowledged it, or never thought it might be relevant. But its effects are being felt even far away in your life at home. This is the problem that you will need to tackle.

You may have tried different solutions to your arguments with your family. Say, you’ve tried your best to support each other and to resolve the arguments in the best way possible. But whilst these solutions might give temporary reprieve, they haven’t tackled the underlying issues.

However, now you have pursued the five whys, you know it is your staff’s lack of training that is causing you to be stressed. You don’t need so much a solution as a counter-measure, a robust strategy in place to defuse effectively the underlying issue: you need a practice or framework that will provide your staff with adequate training.

The right people asking the right questions

Whilst you can ask yourself these questions, the most effective way to identify problems in your business is to confer with those who are directly affected. If you simply presume to know the reasons why your staff are struggling, you may well get the wrong answer.

Instead, come up with answers to these questions with your teams, and drill down through the layers of your business’s issues through discussion, conversation, and an array of different perspectives. (This was Toyoda’s own technique: get to know and involve those with direct experience of the process causing the problems – as you don’t see everything from the boss’s desk!)

Multiplying the answers

With a group of your staff brought together to tackle the problem, you may find that different individuals give different answers. This isn’t only to be expected; it is essential to the problem solving process.

The five whys given above only give one line of reasoning. The reality is almost always much more complex: problems are often the result of a combination of lots of different issues. So, for each why, sketch out the different possible answers; define and write down all of the different possible causes. You could use mind mapping, or brainstorming, to do this investigation with your team.

This will get messy, but that’s part of the point. Lean into and overcome the discomfort with the aim of identifying the real true cause, discuss possible solutions and generate a thorough execution plan with your team. Hold strong on clarity and effectiveness when you do this. If you don’t, you will be back at square one.Is there something that has been repeatedly been showing up in your business recently? Ask Five Whys and see if these shed light on the solution. You might be surprised!

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