A short-term fix to a problem is a tempting goal. After all, if everyone thinks they have solved an issue, there’s an immediate feeling of satisfaction.
However, that satisfaction is short-lived if the solution fails to address the root cause of the problem. All it truly does is put off dealing with the larger underlying issue, meaning the same challenge will need to be addressed again and again.
That’s not acceptable in process improvement.
Avoiding such short-term measures is why root cause analysis is an important part of Six Sigma methodology. It’s a key component of the analyze phase of DMAIC – define, measure, analyze, improve, control.
Six Sigma offers the tools to dig deep into an issue. One of those tools is the Five Whys.
What follows might seem simple common sense to some. That’s actually a compliment to Six Sigma. Much of what the methodology recommends sounds like common sense once you read about it. However, it is not common practice in many organizations.
There’s a difference between knowing the right approach and actually putting it into play. Six Sigma offers ways to put ideas into action. That’s why it works so well across so many different industries.
Curious As A Kid
Root cause analysis is the use of tools and techniques designed to get at the heart of a problem. When the results of a process are not satisfactory, there is always an issue at the bottom of it all that creates a cause-and-effect chain of events that leads to poor outcomes.
The Five Whys are one of the tools to find a root cause. As noted above, they are designed to come into play during the analysis phase of the Six Sigma method of DMAIC.
Typically, a small team is formed to conduct root cause analysis. They look to define a problem and brainstorm solutions. The Five Whys can be used during this analysis effort.
A series of ‘why’ questions should eventually lead to a statement upon which the project team can take action. Six Sigma veterans have found it usually takes at least a series of five ‘why’ questions to reach the root cause.
Of course, any parent is familiar with the “why” question too. Comic Louis CK has even made an entire comedy routine out of it. Unlike adults, children will ask “why” repeatedly until they get an answer they understand. A conversation about why they can’t watch a television show might end up with the parent having to explain what constitutes “adult content” and why kids shouldn’t be allowed to watch it.
It drives parents crazy. However, in the business world – or even your personal life – it can pay to be as curious as a kid.
An Example of Five Whys
To properly use the Five Whys, begin by writing a problem statement. Here’s a simple example of asking ‘why’ questions, using a common issue from everyone’s home life.
Problem statement: This morning, there was no coffee available to brew a pot. This happens frequently in many households (although it might be toilet paper, milk, eggs or some other product in your house).
- Why 1: Why was there no coffee? Because I didn’t buy coffee yesterday.
- Why 2: Why didn’t you buy coffee yesterday? Because I forget I had used the last of the coffee yesterday morning.
- Why 3: Why did you forget you had used the last of the coffee yesterday? Because I had a very busy day and didn’t make a note to myself to buy more coffee.
- Why 4: Why didn’t you make a note to yourself? Because if I don’t write it down immediately, I move on with my day and forget.
- Why 5: Why not write it down right away? Because I’m bad at not maintaining a list of things I need from the store.
Now you have an issue to address. You need to maintain a prominently displayed list of items you need from the store, and add to it immediately when you see you have run out of an item.
Do so, and you’ll never go without your morning coffee again.
The Five Whys In the Workplace
As is easily seen, repeated ‘why’ questions can lead to some interesting places. In the business world, it can also lead to the root causes behind frustrating problems.
An example of using the Five Whys at the office might work this way. Remember, the project team (or a smaller team within the group) has already defined the problem and measured its negative impact on operations.
Essentially, the defined issues become the problem statement.
Problem statement: Process improvement projects always take longer than originally planned to complete, leading to missed revenue opportunities because of failure to put improvements into place.
- Why are projects taking too long? Because the work is not done to meet deadlines as originally planned.
- Why is work not being done as originally planned? The assignments are not being made early enough to individual team members, therefore they do not have the time to get them done by the original deadline.
- Why are assignments not made early enough? Because decisions made on the details of the assignment are taking longer than anticipated.
- Why are they taking longer than anticipated? Because project leaders are not reaching an agreement on what needs to be done in a timely manner.
- Why are projects leaders taking longer than anticipated to reach decisions? Because they are not good at meeting regularly or communicating well, due to other obligations.
Now there is a concrete issue to tackle. Leaders need to make the project a priority and continue to focus on making needed decisions until the project is complete in a timely manner. Emphasis needs to be placed on regular meetings or better communication, or both.
Overly simple? Not really. Many of the issues that lead to what look like complicated problems involve simple root causes. Once they are identified, positive changes can be made. It’s actually identifying these issues and taking action that is the key.
Whether a team uses the Five Whys or another technique, the goal is to find the root cause and take steps to eliminate it. Consider using this tool the next time you are part of a project that has the goal of making process improvements at your organization.
Or the next time you find yourself out of coffee for the 11th time this year.