Solve Problems Like A Five-Year-Old


Ah, the wisdom of youth.  Did you know that five year old children know the secret to root cause analysis?  True story.  It goes something like this:


Small children ask “Why?” up to approximately 18,000 times per day.  It is also a question Sakichi Toyoda used to ask a lot.  Toyoda was one of the brains behind the Toyota Production System (TPS) that helped the automotive giant become the gold standard for process excellence.  I heard the reports were something to see as well, with really great cover pages.

This method, generally known as “five whys,” is a simple way to get to the root cause of a problem.  I think we can all agree that the first answer you get is likely to bring you another question if you care enough to keep asking.  For instance:

“Why do you write about comic books characters instead of Google+ like everyone else?”

“Well…I like comic books more than Google+, I guess.”

OK, fair enough.  But that’s not the root cause of the issue, right?  It’s just another layer down.  So we keep going…

“Why do you like comic books so much?”

“I read them a lot as a child, and have always enjoyed keeping up with the character development.”

Huh.  Interesting.

“Why did you read a lot of comics as a child?”

“My family owned a drug store, and I was forced into hard labor as a pharmacist at the age of three.  Comics were my only real friends.”

After just three questions, we are in a much different place than where we started.  But that’s what root cause analysis is all about.  You go where the questions and answers lead you.  And until you get to the root of a problem, you’ll never really fix anything.

Why five?  Because, that’s why.  Will five always get you the root cause?  Nope.  Sometimes three will do, sometimes ten.  But you have to start somewhere.

There are a few drawbacks to this tools.  First, you can’t come up with root causes you don’t know about, so you are limited to the knowledge of the person answering you.  That’s OK.  You shouldn’t ever rely on one person to answer the question anyway.  Also, you’re likely to get a different set of answers from each person you talk to.  That’s OK, too.  It widens your net.  Most big problems have a lot of contributing factors anyway.  Getting input from several stakeholders can help you scope the issue appropriately and keep you aware of the related issues that may come up later.

What about templates for this tool?  I have good news.  There aren’t any.  You can use Five Whys in lots of ways.  Just about any work you are doing, be it a case study, fishbone diagram, benefits design or group therapy can benefit from dropping in the occasional set of Whys.  Try it out.  You may be surprised at where the questions lead you.

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