Marcia Bagnall, SBDC Director
Have you ever had a recurring business problem that you just couldn’t solve? A problem that came up over and over and wouldn’t go away? Here’s a strategy that may help you discover the root of the problem so that you can stop addressing symptoms (which will always come back) and solve the underlying problem once and for all.
It’s called the “5 Whys” and it’s a question-asking method developed in the 1970s at Toyota. The strategy involves looking at any problem and asking: “Why?” over and over again until you trace the chain of causality down to a root cause that still has some connection to the original problem. Using this technique will help you determine not only the nature of the problem, but the solution as well.
Very often, the answer to the first “why” will prompt another “why” and the answer to the second “why” will prompt another and so on; hence the name the 5 Whys strategy. There’s nothing magical about 5, that’s just the ballpark number of “whys” it takes on average to get to the bottom of something. Often what you’ll find is that the cause of the problem isn’t obvious at first glance, and that’s why you’ve been missing it all this time. Only when you dig and dig will you uncover it.
Here’s an example. Let’s say you have a very unhappy client. So you ask:
1. “Why is my client unhappy?” and the answer might be because you did not deliver your services when you said you would.
2. So why were you unable to meet the agreed-upon timeline or schedule for delivery? Well, the job took much longer than you thought it would.
3. But why did it take so much longer? Turns out you underestimated the complexity of the job and didn’t factor in enough time to complete it.
4. Wow, why did you underestimate the complexity of the job? Because you made a quick estimate of the time needed to complete it, and did not carefully list the individual stages and resources needed to complete the project.
5. Why didn’t you spend more time and effort on the estimate? Because you don’t really have a protocol for estimates, you just do them on the fly.
Aha! You clearly need to review how you handle estimates, and you need to create some clear protocols to handle this in the future. What you’re doing now simply isn’t working, and it causes this same unhappy client problem to recur.
But unless you asked “why?” a few times you probably wouldn’t have connected the unhappy client with the lack of a workable estimates system, and that’s what ultimately turned out to be the root cause. The easy answer would have been to say that you couldn’t deliver on time because you were backed up, or had employees out sick, or any number of other probable causes.
Don’t stop with easy answers! Keep asking “why” until you get to the heart of the problem. Then you’ll be able to formulate a solution.