“The mark of a successful organization isn’t whether or not it has problems, it’s whether it has the same problems it had last year. ”
— John Foster Dulles
As business owners, we face problems almost every day. Customer complaints, product defects, equipment breakdowns, facility issues, employees, suppliers – it’s always something.
Problems are wildly waving red flags indicating systems needing improvement or situations lacking a system. The trick is to not just deal with the symptoms of a problem but to find the root cause. Once you identify the root cause you can fix a problem for good.
A simple, quick, effective way to identify the root cause of a problem is to use the Five Whys technique. Start by asking why the symptoms of the problem occurred and then keep asking why.
Here’s an example. An automotive service business was getting complaints from customers about dirt on their car upholstery. (They were lucky to get complaints, often customers simply do not return.)
- Why are the car seats being soiled? Because the seats are not protected while the car is jockeyed around the shop.
- Why? Because seat protectors are not always being put on the seats.
- Why? Because sometimes paper seat protectors are not available.
- Why? Because purchasing did not get them in time.
- Why? Because they are only told to order them when someone notices the box is empty and bothers to tell them. Then it takes a few days to get them.
In five steps, the symptoms of the problem (dirty seats) were traced back to a root cause (ordering in time).
What did they do? They created a system to reorder seat protectors in time.
The result? No more complaints from customers about dirty upholstery and, a higher repeat business ratio.
Sometimes it takes fewer questions to find the root cause. Sometimes it takes more than five questions, but generally, five questions will find the root cause. Be careful not to skip asking the questions and jump to a conclusion.
Five Whys requires the troubleshooter to have some knowledge of the situation or system. This helps them know what to check. It is also a good way to develop a better understanding of a system.
When and Where?
The best time to apply this technique is when and where problems occur. That way you can verify cause and effect for each question as you work the problem.
The Five Whys technique does not require prior data collection or statistical analysis. You do not need any special tools. You can stand there and reason it through. You can talk it through with others, or if you like, create a form to record the details.
Since this technique relies on the knowledge and reasoning ability of the troubleshooter it is subjective. Consequently, different people may find different root causes for a problem.
Five Whys does not for work for all problems. It’s best suited to simpler, more contained problems. It will not solve global warming or determine why a nuclear reactor shutdown, but it will work on many problems found in your business.
This problem solving technique originated with Toyota Industries for identifying root causes of production line problems. However, it’s not limited to manufacturing. It is used in the office, in retail, in service, by contractors – all types of businesses. You can even use it in your home and your personal life.
The Last Step
Finally, after you determine the root cause and created a solution – verify your solution actually solves the problem. Verify the original symptom does not reoccur. Check the solution does not cause any new problems.
Verifying the solution is also important for several other reasons:
- You learn what works and doesn’t work on a system.
- You improve your knowledge of the system.
- You improve your problem solving ability.
- You develop deeper knowledge about the Five Whys technique.
Teach your employees to use this problem solving technique and use it yourself. This is an easy technique to learn. It is also easy to teach, ideal for managers or employees who lack training in teaching. However, like most things you learn best by using it.
Just remember, with Five Whys you are investigating the system or process, not the people – its Five Whys, not Five “Who’s to Blame”.
You will know you have the System View when a problem occurs in your business and you welcome it as an opportunity.
“A customer who complains is my best friend.”
— Stew Leonard
Pick a problem today. Find the root cause. Fix it for good.