The 5 Whys

In continuing to share what we can learn from Eric Ries’ lessons learned from start-up companies, Mr. Ries advocates for something we have blogged about before: ask why 5 times to make sure you understand the true root cause of an issue, BEFORE you act.

There is a human problem behind any problem, and unless you correct the human component, you will never truly solve the issue. Before your company reorganizes the people, changes existing processes, revamps the services you provide to your customers, or invests in new technology, make sure that you truly understand the cause (not just the symptom) for why things work the way they do.

Sometimes you get to the real root cause after asking only 3 or 4 whys. Mr. Ries gives an example of using the 5 whys technique to get to the heart of a technical problem:

  1. Why did we have a technical issue? Because an engineer did not perform a necessary step.
  2. Why did the engineer miss this step? Because they were never properly trained.
  3. Why were they not trained? Because their manager does not believe in sending their people to training. The manager was focusing on meeting the deadlines of the project instead of spending time to get their people properly trained. This is the true root cause of the technical issue!

I like that to solve the problem, Mr. Ries offers a creative way to do something about it: if you cannot make a dramatic change to solve the problem completely, find a way to make incremental improvements at each step.

  • If the manager says that the whole project is now going to be delayed by 8 weeks while they stop everything to send their people through training, propose alternate ways to solve the training need: like sending people through an hour of training to get started, or creating an online training wiki.
  • Anytime the manager resists by saying the proposals to solve the problem are ridiculous, find ways to keep making incremental progress. When the issue arises again, send the engineers through another hour of training (or include more information on the training wiki)… until ultimately everyone is trained and the technical problem does not happen anymore.

About Michelle Smeby

Michelle Smeby is CEO of wHolistic Change, Inc. with more than 10 years of experience implementing enterprise solutions at Fortune 100 companies. Michelle specializes in helping corporations deliver transformational change.
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