The 5 Whys

I know that I have read a good book when every chapter inspires a new blog post. That is exactly what The Lean Startup has done for me. While I do not plan on writing 14 posts (for 14 chapters!), I want to share as much as I can.

There’s a small tinge of irony that today’s post is all about a tool to find root causes. As I write, I am 30,000 feet above the ground on my way to SFO. Yesterday’s crash is a tragedy and much time will be spent trying to determine what caused the plane to crash – the root cause. The investigators will probably use the 5 Whys.
Why is root cause important?
This may seem obvious with the plane crash, but let’s play this out a little. What if I told you the plane crashed because the back of the tail hit the rock jetty. All we need to do is replace the rock jetty with runway and the problem is solved, right?
This sounds so absurd, but we use this logic all the time in business and in our lives. A junior level employee makes a mistake on an important project. Leadership blames the employee without asking “why did she/he make the mistake?” Leadership tries to fix the first cause rather than making an investment to fix the root cause.
Or look at a personal example…you’re in a store with your 2 year old and she starts to throw a tantrum because you tell her she can’t have an icee (I’d probably throw one myself if denied the coolest drink in town). Your initial reaction might be to try and pacify her as quick as possible (who could blame you? Everyone in the store is looking at you!), but it’s important to think about “why did she throw the tantrum?” What was the root cause of the bad behavior? Can I make an investment (not $, BTW!) that would fix the root cause and reduce the chances that she throws a tantrum in the future?
5 Whys
As mentioned above, the 5 Whys is a tool for determining the root cause. At this point, I want to let you in on a little secret – come close – to use it you ask why 5 times. Shocking, I know. My 2 year old (NOTE: not the one that threw a tantrum for not getting an icee!) is a master at 5 whys. That’s how kids learn, by asking “why?” repeatedly.
The 5 Whys comes from the Japanese automotive industry (Taiichi Ohno, Toyoto)…here’s a link to the wiki if you want to know all the ins and outs.
Even though it sounds simple, it is a powerful tool. But don’t let the simplicity fool you…proceed with caution! Eric Ries recounts in the book that the 5 Whys can quickly turn into the 5 blames. At a former company, he appointed a “5 whys black belt” (tangent: all I can think of is “sweep the leg Johnny”) because the proper use of the 5 whys require experience and skill.
5 Whys example
Here’s the example from the book (and Ries got this 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:
1. Why did the machine stop? There was an overload and the fuse blew.
2. Why was there an overload? The barring was not sufficiently lubricated.
3. Why was it not lubricated sufficiently? The lubrication pump was not pumping sufficiently.
4. Why was it not pumping sufficiently? The shaft of the pump was worn and rattling.
5. Why was the shaft worn out? Because there was no strainer attached and metal scrap got in.
If we didn’t ask why 5 times as in this example, it would have been easy to conclude, “let’s fix this by fixing the fuse or by lubricating the barring.” The 5 whys allows us to see that the root cause is the strainer. Adding a strainer to the machine’s shaft will help keep this issue from happening again.
We could even take this a step further. Assume that all of the machines are supposed to have strainers attached. The next why could lead us to determine that more training is needed, or that we need to make other policy/process changes.
5 Whys for beginners
Here are some things Ries asks us to keep in mind, when we conduct a 5 Whys session
-Make sure that everyone effected by the problem is in the room during the analysis of the root cause
–if the problem was escalated to senior management, then those managers (up to the CEO) should also be in the room
-The most senior people in the room should repeat this mantra “if a mistake happens, shame on us for making it possible for someone to make that mistake”
If you don’t have a black belt in the 5 Whys, Ries has a simplified system to help develop the muscles:
1. Be tolerant of all mistakes the first time.
2. Never allow the same mistake to be made twice.
Proportional investment in root causes
The core idea is to tie investments to the problem. The investment should be larger the larger the problem or symptom. In the example above, if the machine going down is a minor problem, it would not be necessary to invest $100k in a training program to prevent this problem. But if the machine stopping costs the plant $10MM, then it’s worth the investment in prevention.
You read this in The Lean Startup?
Correct. So what does any of this have to do with a startup or being an entrepreneur? Here’s a quote from Ries:
“The 5 Whys approach acts as a natural speed regulator. The more problems you have, the more you invest in solutions to those problems. As the investments in infrastructure and process payoff, the number and severity of crises are reduced, and the team speeds up again.
With startups there is a danger that teams will work too fast, trading quality for time in a way that causes sloppy mistakes. 5 Whys prevents that, allowing teams to find their optimal pace.
The 5 Whys turns progress to learning, not just execution. Startup teams should go through the 5 whys whenever they encounter any kind of failure…
5 Whys is a powerful organizational technique. Some of the engineers I have trained to use it believe that you can derive all the other lean startup techniques from the 5 Whys. Coupled with working in small batches, it provides the foundation a company needs to respond quickly to problems as they appear without over-investing or over-engineering”
“The 5 Whys is important for teams – problems can have the tendency to pull people apart, the 5 Whys reverses this and actually brings teams together.”
I’m grateful that Ries has introduced me to this concept in his book. I am looking forward to working my way towards mastery. Have you ever used this technique before? Do you have success or horror stories? If so, please share.

4 thoughts on “The 5 Whys

  1. Pingback: What is the real problem? | Build To Think

  2. Pingback: Elephant Gun | Build To Think

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