Inquiring minds aim to find the root cause of problems.

The Five Whys is a technique developed in manufacturing that helps people get to the root source of a quality problem. The point of the Five Whys is to drill down to the cause by continuing to ask questions instead of running around curing symptoms. When you get to the root cause and eliminate the source, you prevent the problem from popping up again in the future. It is disarmingly simple and yet when used gives remarkable results.

Example: A few years ago, the Washington Monument was disintegrating.
1. Why? Because of harsh cleaning chemicals.
2. Why use harsh chemicals? To clean off pigeon poop.
3. Why so many pigeons? They like to eat spiders and there are a lot of spiders on the monument.
4. Why so many spiders? They like to eat gnats and there are lots of gnats around the monument.
5. Why so many gnats? They are attracted to the light at dusk.
Solution: Turn on the lights at a later time.

You can quickly see that without going through the Five Whys, folks would’ve arrived at some less than satisfactory answers. They could’ve wasted all sorts of time researching different cleaning supplies and maybe found one that was less harmful. That might have meant the monument would decay at a slower rate, but the damage would continue over time.

Or, they could have painted the monument in some pigeon-resistant paint.

Or, they could’ve soaked the monument in bug spray every day.

The real issue wasn’t cleaning solutions, pigeons or spiders - it was gnats - and they only like to come out at dusk. Dissuading them from doing so made all the other symptoms go away.

Asking “Why?” is a valuable problem-solving tool. And it can be used to detect problems in your company everywhere from your warehouse to your sales force and in between.

Start with Five Whys

The technique is known as the “Five Whys” because experience shows that by asking (at least) five whys you will get to the core problem or pretty darn close to it.

The steps for performing the “Five Whys” are:
1. Write down the specific problem. This focuses the team on the problem.
2. Ask why the problem occurs and write down the answer.
3. If the answer doesn’t identify the root cause of the problem, ask why again and write down that answer.
4. Repeat step 3 until the team agrees that a root problem has been found. This could be at four, five, or even six or seven whys. Despite its simplicity, the technique has been proven to be effective.

But is it really that simple? Yes!

Here is another example, taking more than five questions to resolve:

Problem: Customers are dissatisfied. They are receiving products that don’t meet their specifications.
1. Why are customers being shipped off-spec products?
Because the warehouse shipped something different than that which the customer and the salesperson agreed upon.

2. Why did the warehouse ship the wrong thing?
Because the salesperson expedites the order by calling downstairs to the warehouse. The error occurred when the specification was being communicated and transcribed.

3. Why do salespeople call the floor directly to start the process instead of following the proper procedures?
Because the official order form requires the sales manager’s approval before the order can be placed. This slows down the process.

4. Why does the form require the approval of the sales manager?
Because the sales manager wants to be continually updated on the sales pipeline for planning with the CEO.

5. Why doesn’t the sales manager use the computer system to stay abreast of the sales pipeline?
Because he doesn’t have faith in the data.

6. Why doesn’t he have faith in the data?
Because data input is very sloppy and not done in real time.

7. Why is data input sloppy?
People aren’t comfortable with the system. They don’t know how to correct, update, or validate sales information.

The solution is twofold - training and/or a more user friendly system.

Consultants know that by identifying the cause of a problem, the problem is 80% on the way to being solved. It may sound too easy, but give it a try. Put together a small “get to the root of the problem - Five Whys team” and try tackling some of those reoccurring problems that just never seem to go away. And you will see that asking “Why?” over and over again is very effective.