The ‘5 Whys’ Problem Solving Tool
If you have a problem that you can’t seem to get rid of, it may be that there are more complex issues going on. By going for a quick fix, you may solve the initial problem, but not the underlying one. The ‘5 Whys’ is a tool you can use to dig deeper into a problem to try to uncover any underlying causes and then deal with them.
The tool gets you to focus on counter-measures rather than solutions. This means looking for actions that should prevent the issue arising again in the future, rather than just a solution that will deal with the symptoms on show. A counter-measure approach is more likely to prevent issues recurring.
The tool is a seven-step process, and we will run through them as follows:
Step 1 – Assemble a team
To start the process, you will need to bring together a group of people who are familiar with the issue and have the knowledge required to be able to discuss it. You will need to appoint someone to act as a facilitator – their role will be to keep the team focused while looking for counter-measures that may be effective.
Step 2 – Define the problem
If it is at all possible, see if the problem can be observed as it happens. Then discuss it with the problem-solving team, and develop a statement that describes the problem clearly and succinctly, agreed on by all the team. Write this statement on a flipchart/whiteboard, with enough room around it for further notes.
Step 3 – Ask the first ‘Why?’
Now is the time for the first of the ‘5 Whys’. Ask the team to consider why the problem is happening. It sounds like a simple idea, but actually, in answering it, the team need to ensure their answers are based on fact rather than guesses. The team might come up with one reason or many possible ones. Their answers should be documented underneath the problem statement, as briefly as possible while still retaining their full meaning.
Step 4 – Ask ‘Why?’ four more times
Now use one of the answers from Step 3 and ask four more ‘Why’ questions. At this stage, you are digging deeper to try to uncover the underlying reason for the issue. Keep recording your responses on the whiteboard/flipchart. Move quickly from question to question to make sure you are getting the full picture. An example is below:
The counter-measure, in this case, would be to update the ordering system to ensure there is automatic re-ordering. There may be more than one response to each why question, and if this is the case you can keep asking why for each reason so that you have multiple ‘lanes’ of enquiry.
Step 5 – Know when to stop
When the useful responses dry up, then you can stop asking why. At this stage, the counter-measure should become evident. This may take five ‘whys’ but if you reach this point sooner, or later, then it’s OK to stop!
Step 6 – Address the root causes
Identifying the root causes isn’t enough, now is the time to agree on what to do about them. As a team, discuss the cause(s) and concur counter-measures to prevent the problem from happening again.
Step 7 – Monitoring the measures
When the measures are put in place, ensure you develop a process to monitor how effective they are in preventing or reducing the initial problem. You may need to come back to the process if they are not working as well as you thought, and continue with the questioning.
The ‘5 Whys’ process sounds simple, but can be extremely useful to ensure that you are digging deep into the root cause of an issue, not just addressing the symptoms. The key is to make sure that you have asked ‘why?’ enough times to get to that root cause.
Stick with it; it really does work.