Thursday, March 5, 2009

Making 5-Why work for you

One of the simplest tools to use in solving problems is a 5-why analysis. It is also one of the least understood and poorly applied tools. It seems that simple concepts can be the most difficult to apply and execute.

In almost every instance where I have seen it used, the answers to the "why" seem shallow and the root cause of the problem - or even the real problem - is seldom identified or resolved.

So how does a tool that we all learn to master at an early age become obsolete as an adult? Kids at 4 years of age are masters at this … why-dad, why-mom, why, why, why, they’ll drive you nuts if you let them. And they get the answers and the understanding they seek through the process. But we lose that mastery when we grow up and enter the world of business.

Problem solving can be a bit like swatting flies. We see a fly (the problem) and swat it. But we don’t get to the source of the flies … what is attracting them and what the cause is in the first place.

In many businesses, problem solving takes a similar approach. We solve the problems as we find them, but we don’t know if we are working on the right problem, or the biggest problem with our limited resources.

That becomes increasingly important in these tough economic times. When everyone is tightening their belts, how do I make sure my limited resources are focused on the biggest problems in the organization?

Using 5-why is not enough. The 5-why process is most effective when it is used in combination with “therefore” and “so that”. If that sounds confusing, its because we lost the art of asking “why” when we grew up. As 4 year olds, we did not accept an irrelevant answer. So lets re-learn the key to making this work.

Think of problem solving as the branches of a tree (or the file structure in your computer).

5-why is useful in identifying potential causes of the problem. The “why” opens up more branches of the tree. This gives us many more potential avenues to pursue.

Using “therefore” moves us closer to the trunk. If the answer opened by the “why” question can not be returned by a “therefore” test, the answer to the why is not relevant. For example, if we follow the line of questioning that Kent Blumberg used on his blog post:

The “why” process takes us DOWN the chain

The gas bill is high, Why
The gas consumption is high, Why?
We turned up the thermostat, Why?
We shiver if it is set lower, Why
We are wearing shorts

The “therefore” process takes us UP the chain

We are wearing shorts, therefore
We are shivering, therefore
We turned up the thermostat, therefore
The gas consumption was high, therefore
The gas bill is high

By validating the “why” answers with a “therefore” statement we ensure the path remains relevant and we are on track. This process will help eliminate the shallow responses.

Now that we have validated the “why’s” with “therefore’s” we need to ask “so that”. The “so that” statement relates how effective our solution is to our goal.

We are not wearing shorts “so that” the gas bill is not high.

Our solution of “not wearing shorts” to meet our goal of “lowering the gas bill” may not be the most effective. Perhaps we could have had a better answer when we asked why the gas consumption was high.

By combining the “why” analysis with “therefore” checking and “so that” validation we have an effective tool to get to the right problem and the right solution.

How did problem solving become so complicated? It seemed so much simpler when we were 4 year olds.


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