Today I am going to show you how you can use a technique that seems very simple. Almost everyone has heard about it but very few people can use it effectively. It’s the five whys technique.
It’s very simple to use. But if used effectively it can produce very powerful outcomes. And it’s also extremely versatile. It can be combined with other techniques. I recently used it in combination with another technique and we came up with 14 ideas under an hour to improve my client’s design review process. These improvements will help the Engineering team identify and prevent repeating design flaws in the future. The benefit is that now they can design a process to identify design issues in early design stages and avoid rework issues.
Just imagine how you’ll feel if you could eliminate most of the future mistakes. Will you feel more relieved? More confident? Most people do. And that’s why 5 whys is so popular.
So, when can you use the five whys technique?
You can use it in almost all cases where you are experiencing some issues, and you want to find out the root cause of the issue so that you can come up with an effective strategy to stop the issue from arising again.
Engineers use it to identify technical root cause analysis and improve their design & maintenance processes.
Professionals from any field can use it to uncover the underlying issues when a process is not working as planned.
IT professionals use it for debugging their codes and finding issues between multiple integrated systems.
Safety professionals use it to uncover the causes of failure and place proactive safety measures to improve the safety of the system.
How to move from reactive actions to proactive strategies
Five whys is an established lean six sigma technique and is associated with root cause analysis. And the principle of this technique is: to uncover the underlying cause of an issue you need to ask “why” multiple times. It doesn’t have to be 5 times, depending on the complexity of the issue you may need to ask whys somewhere between 3 to 5 times and in some cases maybe even more than 10 times.
This is in contrast with the typical practice where most people ask “why” once or twice and start jumping to implement remedial actions. But at that level, you are most likely experiencing symptoms. and the actions would be focusing on temporary band-aid fixes and reactive or mitigative measures, where you are focusing on damage control rather than stopping the issues arising in the first place.
5 whys is designed to get to the bottom of the issue you are experiencing. And for this purpose, we need to go deep. How to remember this? Just remember, just like trees, to find the root, we need to go deep.
Example of investigating engineering issues
Here is an example. In this example, I’ll start with an engineering issue and then continue exploring the process issues.
Imagine a machine keeps breaking down. You’ve been assigned the responsibility for investigating the issue and finding strategies to stop it happening again.
Now, you are going to apply the 5 whys technique to get to the bottom of this.
So, you start asking “why” to understand the source of the underlying causes.
- Why did the machine stop?
Because the machine was overloaded and the fuse was blown.
2. Why did the machine overload?
Because it had a bearing that wasn’t lubricated properly.
3. Why was the bearing not lubricated?
Because the pump that supplies lubrication was not pumping enough lubrication,
4. Why was the pump not pumping enough lubrication?
Because the shaft was damaged.
5. Why was the shaft damaged?
It was damaged by debris and contaminations.
At this point, you decided that you have found the root cause and decided to implement a new filtering system to protect the pump. By making a change in your Engineering Design you are implementing a permanent strategy to prevent the issue occurring again.
Example of investigating process issues
Now consider if 12 months later the same problem came up.
6. Why was the shaft damaged?
The filter was worn out and the shaft was damaged by debris and contaminations.
7. Why was the filter worn out?
The filter was not replaced during maintenance.
8. Why was the filter not replaced during maintenance?
It was overlooked during maintenance.
9. Why was it overlooked during maintenance?
The maintenance activities were rushed.
10. Why were maintenance activities rushed?
The number of maintenance-crew was insufficient.
11. Why was the number of maintenance-crew insufficient?
The number of staff was reduced.
12. Why was the number of staff reduced?
It was part of a corporate strategy to reduce cost.
Creating game-changing strategies
What is the point of conducting any analysis? To get perspective. To generate insights. To understand where to look next.
And what is your goal once you have completed your analysis? To make decisions and develop strategies. Decisions and strategies that solve the problem, open new opportunities for growth and change the bottom line.
How can you create game-changing strategies for the above example?
The insights we found are very valuable. The business wanted to reduce cost, so they reduced the number of maintenance crews without reducing the workload. As the maintenance personnel was rushed, he couldn’t complete all the required tasks. Now the business lost one of its expensive assets, incurring additional costs to the business.
Was the cost-cutting strategy truly reducing cost? Not in theory, what is happening in real life?
Is it possible that there are other similar issues building up with other assets? How does the cost of repairing these assets and loss of production compare to the savings made by reducing the number of staff? Is the business better off or worse off because of this decision?
When the business finish collecting the information to answer these questions, they will have clarity, which helps to make decisions on whether to keep the cost-cutting strategy or abandon the strategy. A change in strategic decisions like this can have a significant change in outcome.
By using 5 whys correctly you can uncover true causes of failure and focus on developing strategies that deliver significant outcomes.