Root Cause Analysis: The 5 Whys


I love memorable and easy to implement tools for problem solving. After all, solving problems is at least half of what leaders spend their time doing. Mine as well make it simple. Root cause analysis sounds uber complex and it can be. There are a variety of methods and tools out there that take hours upon hours to complete. Sometimes that's necessary, but I'm a fan of trying the simplest solution first and then escalating the complexity if the problem continues to rear it's ugly head.

The 5 Whys is nothing new, it's part of the Six Sigma process and became well-known from it's use with Toyota Production System in the 70's. I was just recently reminded of it from a good friend, Kim Barber. Kim is an adjunct professor with the University of Utah's School of Business and a wealth of practical information. In fact, that's what she teaches: putting management theory into practice.

Quick & Dirty Root Cause Analysis: An Example of The 5 Whys in Practice

Problem: Phone calls and emails aren't returned in a timely fashion or at all. Instituting a "Return all communications within 24 hours" rule has been ineffective in changing the trend.

1. Why? Quick interviews with the worst offenders reveal that they "just don't have time."

2. Why? They indicate that they have too much paperwork that they are behind on.

3. Why? Pushing the question, it becomes apparent that these staff are always behind, making paperwork more time-consuming since they have to go searching for the old information.

4. Why? Their supervisors nag about the deadlines, but never actually enforce them with any interventions or consequences.

5. Why? Addressing the identified issue with supervisors reveals that they don't feel comfortable enforcing the deadlines that they themselves don't keep. This is the way deadlines have always worked; ie. this is a problem embedded in the culture.

Without peeling the onion back five layers, the folks interested in solving the problem with returned phone calls would have been left with supervisors blaming their staff on the surface, but enabling the behavior through their own lack of commitment. The root cause of poor role modeling was able to be impacted directly, trickling down to the staff members.

Sometimes what appears to be the problem in the surface is only a symptom. More often than not in my experience. Try the 5 Whys for yourself next time you encounter a problem in your organization.