roblems are part of life, but understanding the root cause of them is never simple. When we first run into any problem we naturally ask, why did that happen? The response is hardly telling at first. Because. I don’t know. It’s broken. It failed. And so on. Far too often we leave it at that.
We answer the question, but the root cause is still unknown. Asking why one time doesn’t really achieve anything. It was this type of surface level answers that led to a simple cause-and-effect questioning technique known as the 5 Whys.
The 5 Whys technique was first developed by Sakichi Toyoda and was used in Toyota’s manufacturing process to uncover root causes for defects. A variation known as the 3 Whys is used by Ricardo Semler at Semco, which he leverages to manage his business ventures. The premise is the same.
The first why is almost always a throwaway, but each subsequent why gets you closer to the truth. More importantly, this isn’t limited to business practices, but can be a great tool to understand yourself and why you do the things you do. Of course, asking why 5 times is easier said then done.
1. Why didn’t you work on your book?
I was tired.2. Why were you tired?
I didn’t get enough sleep.
3. Why didn’t you get enough sleep?
I was binge watching Netflix all night.
4. Why did you watch Netflix all night?
I was procrastinating because I didn’t want to write.
5. Why were you procrastinating?
Because I’m scared of failing as an author and that my book may be a complete and utter failure! I don’t think my writing is any good and I don’t want to face that failure, so instead of working, I’m just avoiding the problem! HAPPY?!
Well that escalated quickly. The point is, continuously asking why gets to the root cause one way or the other, either rationally or emotionally.
It can be uncomfortable and the answers may surprise you, but the process often leads to invaluable insights. Here’s a few guidelines to make this practice work (P.S. I’d highly recommend Semler’s TED Talk on Radical Wisdom).
Don’t jump to conclusions
First and most important, is to take a step-by-step approach to solving the problem. Don’t try to jump right to an assumed cause, but get there in a logical manner.
Make the natural progression from one symptom to the next, until you find the root cause.
Pay attention to cause and effect
Related to taking things step-by-step, is the need to assess the relationship between the steps. There should be a clear cause and effect between each why.
This ensures that you’re staying on track and truly focusing on the right issues, not some blind assumptions.
Involve as many people as needed
Sometimes, the parties involved don’t have all the necessary information to truly answer why. In these situations, it’s important to involve all relevant parties, to ensure questions can be properly answered.
We don’t know what we don’t know, so asking why to the wrong person won’t get you far.
Don’t just blame it on human-error
It can be easy to chalk up an issue on human-error, but that’s never a good answer. Nothing is ever so simple as placing blame.
Ask why did that mistake happen? How can we prevent it from happening again? There’s always a better solution than blaming it on people.
Ask why until the root cause is found
The number of times you ask isn’t important, what is important is getting to the ultimate root cause. It can be easy to get confused between a symptom and a cause, but this distinction must be made.
If there’s no natural progression or next step from the answer you have, you’ve found the root cause and can then take action. This is vital because it tells you when to stop asking why.
Validate what you find
If you think you’ve find the issue, make sure! Don’t just assume you did it right. After all, there are many variables at play here, so make sure your diagnosis is correct.
There can be many outcomes and our own personal agendas can get in the way. Try to focus on the facts and always look for evidence in what you uncover.
The important thing is to not stop questioning; curiosity has its own reason for existing.Albert Einstein
Whether you ask why 3 times or 5 times or 100 times, the answer will get you to the root cause through shear force. The process makes us think of things on a deeper level, beyond what is apparent.
When you run into a problem next, start asking why and discover the root cause of your problem.
Image via flickr