Raise your hand if you never deal with problems at work. Every company process works flawlessly for you every time, each project is completed on budget and before the deadline, you never make mistakes or deal with unfortunate circumstances…
If you're raising your hand, feel free to skip this article because you won't need it. But for everyone else, keep reading!
Problems at work are just a part of life, which means problem solving is an incredibly valuable business skill. In this post, we'll look at the 5 Whys technique and how to use it to discover why specific problems occur so that you can prevent them in the future.
What is the 5 Whys Technique?
The 5 Whys is a root cause analysis technique that was originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda, a Japanese inventor whose son became the founder of Toyota Industries, back in the 1930s. Sakichi's simple technique has helped his son's and many other companies make more informed decisions.
"Great," you're thinking, "But what are the 5 whys? And since we're on the topic, what is root cause analysis?" Great questions! We'll tackle the second one first:
What is Root Cause Analysis?
Root cause analysis is the process of examining a specific incident to discover the underlying cause behind it, i.e the root cause. That way the most effective solution can be determined and implemented moving forward.
This approach is normally performed after a less-than stellar incident, but can also be used to learn more about positive scenarios as well.
What Are the 5 Whys?
The 5 Whys is an extremely simple, but highly effective, root cause analysis technique. All you have to do is ask "Why?" five times until you discover the underlying reason behind a particular issue. For example, if you wanted to discover why you scored so badly on a math test, you could perform the 5 Whys technique:
- Why did I score badly on my test? Because I didn't know the answers to the questions.
- Why didn't I know the answers to the questions? Because I didn't study.
- Why didn't I study? Because playing video games sounded like more fun.
- Why did video games sound like more fun? Because the test topic is very boring.
- Why is the test topic boring? Because I don't care about math.
BOOM! The root cause is that I don't care about math, the subject just doesn't interest me. Now that I know this, I can try to develop a solution. Notice how each answer informs the next questions. This is critical and will allow you to get to the bottom of any issue.
How to Use the 5 Whys
Now that we know what the 5 Whys technique is, let's talk about how to use it. The three-step 5 Whys template below is straightforward and easy to follow. You first identify the problem, then ask "Why?" five times, and end by implementing a solutions.
Let's look at each of these steps in greater detail:
1. Identify the Problem
The first step in the 5 Whys technique is to identify the problem you need to solve or the success you want to repeat. This should NOT be a solo affair. We recommend including multiple members of your team, and even staffers in other departments if necessary, to ensure you have all the details you need during the root cause analysis process.
When your team has been assembled, discuss the problem or solution in detail and define it clearly. Pay special attention to the scope of the issue you're investigating. If the scope is too wide, you may have a hard time nailing down specific causes and will end up wasting a lot of time — definitely not what you want!
Instead, focus your efforts as best you can. Remember, you can always perform the 5 Whys technique on multiple minor problems in order to solve a larger, overarching issue.
2. Ask "Why?" 5 Times
When you've discussed the issue with your team and stated it in a clear way, you can start asking "Why?" That's the easy part. Answering your "Why?" questions will require serious effort and brainpower. It's worth it, though!
Make sure that your answers are based on facts and actual occurrences, not theories. This is a trap and will likely render your efforts to discover root causes unsuccessful.
Pro Tip: The number five isn't some super special figure with magical properties. It's just a number. When using the 5 Whys technique to identify the root causes of your own problems and success, feel free to ask as many questions as you need to reach the core issues.
At the same time, don't go overboard and continue asking why just for the heck of it. Once you've identified the root problem, call it a day and start working on developing a solution.
3. Implement a Solution
Congratulations! At this point, you should be done asking "Why?" and have been able to identify the root cause of a specific problem or success. Now what? That's simple: implement a solution that will help you either remedy the problem or recreate the success.
This process, like the question asking portion of the 5 Whys technique, should be completed with a group if possible, not in isolation.
When a realistic solution has been decided upon, don't wait to implement it. Assign team members to specific directives immediately and check in on their progress regularly. The only way to fix an issue or return to a former glory is to take action.
It would also be wise to document any new processes, techniques, or best practices and share them with all relevant parties. That way your entire company will be up to date moving forward.
When to Use the 5 Whys
If you follow the 5 Whys template above, you'll be able to dig down and discover the root cause of most problems or successes. For example, you could use the 5 Whys technique to troubleshoot a faulty company process or improve the quality of your organization's products.
But in general, the 5 Whys technique is most effective when used to solve simple to moderately complex issues. If the problem you're trying to solve is quite in-depth, you might be better off using a different methodology, though.
If that's the case, we suggest the "Cause and Effect Analysis" or the "Failure Mode and Effects Analysis" techniques.
A Simple 5 Whys Example
Whew, we've covered a lot so far! But before we end this article and send you on your merry way, we wanted to show you a simple example of the 5 Whys technique in action.
Meet Walter, the customer service manager at a SaaS startup in Austin, TX. Lately, Walter's company has been experiencing a higher level of customer complaints than normal and he wants to discover why. He decides to use the 5 Whys technique to help find the answer.
First, Walter assembles his team which consists of himself, a few senior level customer service reps, the VP of marketing, and the head of product. They discuss the problem and define it in the form of a question, "Why are we receiving so many customer complaints in regard to our new software release?"
They then ask the remaining four "Why?" questions:
- Question: "Why are we receiving so many customer complaints in regard to our new software release?" Answer: "Our customers don't understand the new interface."
- Question: "Why don't our customers understand the new interface?" Answer: "It's completely different and there are no training materials for them to consume."
- Question: "Why are there are no training materials for them to consume?" Answer: "Our product team hasn't had time to develop them yet."
- Question: "Why hasn't the product team had time to develop the training materials yet?" Answer: "They've been busy fixing various software bugs."
- Question: "Why have they been busy fixing various software bugs?" Answer: "We released the new software update before it was ready."
Bingo! The root cause of the increase in customer complaints is the fact that Walter's company rushed the release of the new software update. Because of this, the product has a lot of bugs and the product team is forced to spend their time fixing them rather than developing training materials and educating users on how to use the new interface.
Now that Walter understand what's causing the issue, he can work with his company and develop a plan to remedy it.
Discover Root Causes With the 5 Whys Technique
The 5 Whys technique will help you solve pressing problems or recreate stunning successes. Luckily, it's not hard to use! Simply:
- Identify the Problem
- Ask "Why?" 5 times, and
- Implement a Solution
Do that and you'll be well on your way to greater business success. Good luck!
Once you've performed the 5 Whys technique and discovered the root cause of a specific problem or success, you need to share the results with your entire team. You might even want to create training tutorials or annotated images describing any new processes or methodologies.
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