Stuff happens and when things go wrong, it’s easy to try to blame somebody else. Instead of blaming, use the five whys questioning process to ask questions and solve the root cause of the problem once and for all.
The idea is simple. If you have a problem, ask the question “Why?” five times to understand what has happened. The technique was developed by Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System, as a problem-solving tool.
The Five Whys Technique From Taiichi Ohno
When confronted with a problem, have you ever stopped and asked “Why?” five times? 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 built on the practice and evolution of this scientific approach. By asking and answering the five whys, we can get to the real cause of the problem, which is often hidden behind more obvious symptoms.
Notice in the example above how it took asking “Why?” five times before you discovered that the real cause of the problem was human error (somebody forgot to attach a strainer), as opposed to a product fault (a blown fuse). And you can “fix” human error through better training and implementing systems or checklists.
Solve Your Sales Shortfall
Here’s a common example of how you could apply the five whys in your business. Let’s say you missed your monthly sales number by 5 percent. The conversation between you and your sales manager might go like this.
- Why did we fall 5 percent short? (We made fewer sales calls this month.)
- Why did we make fewer sales calls this month? (We had fewer leads to work this month.)
- Why did we have fewer leads to work this month? (We sent fewer email offers.)
- Why did we send fewer email offers? (We were short staffed.)
- Why were we short staffed? (We didn’t plan well for two people who were on vacation.)
If you stopped asking “Why?” after the first question, you might have thought the solution to the problem was to make more sales calls next month. But in reality, you had to ask five whys to realize the fewer calls was driven by lack of planning for two people who were on vacation. If you do not fix the vacation planning process, then the call shortfall problem will reappear in the future.
In this example, changing your vacation reporting system could be a simple fix to ensure you don’t fall short in sending email offers.
Proportional Investment and the 80/20 Rule
Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, takes it a step further and said you can use the five whys to build an adaptive organization. How? By making “a proportional investment at each of the five levels of the hierarchy.”
He said, “The investment should be smaller when the symptom is minor and larger when the symptom is more painful. We don’t make large investments in prevention unless we’re coping with large problems.”
If you’re a fast-growing company, you have to pick your spots and determine where you can afford to spend your valuable time and money resources on solving problems. The 80/20 rule makes sense here. Focus on solving the 20% of the problem that gives you 80% of the solution. If you wait for perfection to launch or take the next step, you’ll be waiting forever.
Ironically, questions are the answers. By asking “Why?” five times, you’ll get to the root of problems faster and fix them for good.
About Mark Moses
Mark Moses is the Founding Partner of CEO Coaching International and the Amazon Bestselling author of Make Big Happen. His firm coaches over 100 of the world’s top high-growth entrepreneurs and CEO’s on how to dramatically grow their revenues and profits, implement the most effective strategies, becoming better leaders, grow their people, build accountability systems, and elevate their own performance. Mark has won Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year award and the Blue Chip Enterprise award for overcoming adversity. His last company ranked #1 Fastest-Growing Company in Los Angeles as well as #10 on the Inc. 500 of fastest growing private companies in the U.S. He has completed 12 full distance Ironman Triathlons including the Hawaii Ironman World Championship 5 times.