Earlier this month Josh Nankivel wrote a great post on blame, Blame Failure on Your Project Stakeholders. With tongue firmly planted in cheek Josh suggests, “We all screw up from time to time. It’s in those moments when the most important thing is to know who to blame.”
Sometimes it feels that way.
Josh mentioned something I had read about recently in Eric Ries book, The Lean Startup. Ries talks about a technique for root cause analysis called The 5 Whys? The technique suggests that you so start with the problem and ask why it happened. It’s not about placing blame, it’s about learning.
I’m not going to repeat Josh’s 5 Whys? analysis here, but it’s worth looking at his post.
Basically, asking why isn’t enough.
“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 the Toyota Production System…”
When we let our natural tendency to place blame get in the way of solving problems, we aren’t able to get at the root cause and sometimes the wrong event or person takes all the blame. It isn’t very productive and it doesn’t do anything to foster an environment where people learn from mistakes quickly.
“When confronted with a problem, have you ever asked why five times?” asks Ohno. “It is difficult to do even though it 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 build 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.”
Placing blame when things go wrong isn’t the answer to solving problems and avoiding them in the future—however, discovering the root cause of problems helps us improve processes, template and incorporate best practices and ultimately improve the likelihood of successful outcomes.