Sunday, January 09, 2011

The Five Whys

There is a technique in root cause analysis called "The Five Whys."  It was pioneered by Taiichi Ohno for Toyota as a method of identifying the causes of manufacturing problems and engaging team members in developing solutions.  The process itself is very simple and nicely illustrated by this example I found as I was researching the topic:

Problem:  An employee injured his thumb.
Why did the associate damage his thumb?
Because his thumb got caught in the conveyor.
Why did his thumb get caught in the conveyor?
Because he was chasing his bag, which was on a running conveyor.
Why did he chase his bag?
Because he had placed his bag on the conveyor, which had then started unexpectedly.
Why was his bag on the conveyor?
Because he was using the conveyor as a table.
Why was he using the conveyor as a table?
Because he didn't have any other table to use.

There's the item that needs addressing.  According to the documentation on the technique, the "root cause" (which may take 5 whys or 7 whys or 3 whys...the 5 is a somewhat arbitrary number) will be rather apparent when you run out of reasons why.  The above example could possibly have gone a few more levels:   

Why didn't he have another table to use?  
Because the company didn't provide one.   
Why didn't the company provide one?  
Because management did not know that employees needed tables.   
Why didn't they know?  
Because there is no process for employees to identify needs.
 *note:  These are my suppositions and not part of the original example.

Typically the final "why" will point to a process that needs correcting...but even if it doesn't, the root cause will be evident when you run out of answers to why or reasons to ask it.  As a technique, it's a very useful way to dig down below the surface and get to the root cause of an issue.  It's been criticized for being overly simplistic, but I'd argue that it beats spending a lot of effort trying to fix a problem without fully understanding why it happened.

The Five Whys have been on my mind lately as I've contemplated the year ahead.  I'm not much of a resolution maker, but I like to at least start the year on a thoughtful note.  This is potentially a big year.  I'll be finishing school.  The Monkey will be finishing up his occupational therapy (I hope!).  MonkeyDad is getting remarried.  It feels like exactly the right time to do some examination of those things I need (or believe I need) and those things that I want (or think I want) and figure out why.  I'm stewing over some significant decisions about my life (our lives) and I want to make sure that whatever I decide, it's for all the right reasons.

Do you have a technique that works well for sorting out decisions in your own life?  I'd love to hear about it in the comments...

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