As many of you know, I’m a pretty consistent reader. A few months ago, I picked up a new book, The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries. I read it at the recommendation of my boss and have found it to be a very informative book about creating an environment of innovation and growth.
Project-based work is messy and fraught with risk. In fact, I’m pretty convinced that dealing with failures of one sort or another is just part of the equation. With that in mind, Ries describes what feels to me like a simple and logical approach to getting to the root cause of the problem. Of course, I won’t be able to do it justice within a blog post, but the book is well worth the read and chapter 11 is where you will find the “Wisdom of the Five Whys”.
“The core idea of the Five Whys is to tie investments directly to the prevention of the most problematic symptoms,” writes Ries. “The system takes its name from the investigative method of asking the question “Why?” five times to understand what has happened (the root cause). If you’ve ever had to answer a precocious child who wants to know “Why is the sky blue?” and keeps asking “Why?” after each answer, you’re familiar with it. This technique was developed as a systematic problem-solving tool by Taiichi Ohno, the father of Toyota the Production System…”
Ries suggests, and I wholeheartedly agree, that “At the root of every technical problem is a human problem. Five Whys provides an opportunity to discover what the human problem might be…”
Ries presents an example that Ohno often gives to illustrate the point:
“When confronted with a problem, have you ever stopped and asked why five times? It is difficult to do even though is sounds easy. For example, suppose a machine stopped functioning:
- Why did the machine stop? (There was an overload and the fuse blew.)
- Why was there an overload? (The bearing was not sufficiently lubricated.)
- Why was it not lubricated sufficiently? (The lubrication pump was not pumping sufficiently.)
- Why was it not pumping sufficiently? (The shaft of the pump was worn and rattling.)
- Why was the shaft worn out? (There was no strainer attached and metal scrap got in.)
“Repeating “why” five times, like this, can help uncover the root problem and correct it. If this procedure were not carried through, one might simply replace the fuse or the pump shaft. In that case, the problem would recur within a few months. The Toyota production system has been built on the practice and evolution of this scientific approach. By asking and answering “why” five times, we can get to the real cause of the problem, which is often hidden behind more obvious symptoms.”
I like the simplicity of this approach. In fact, I’ve used similar approaches in the past to great success. Be aware, the answers to the Five Whys are sometimes hard to take. Sometimes it takes some intestinal fortitude to go through through this exercise—as was mentioned before, at their core, most technical problems are really people problems.
Of course, this is nothing new. I’d be very interested to hear if any of you have had experience with the Five Whys and how it worked for your team.