The 5 Whys…Getting to the Bottom of It!

I remember the day I started my new position as the Director of Continuous Improvement here at CCI Systems.  I was so excited and nervous at the same time. One of my main objectives was to nurture a culture of “Lean” thinking. Lean was the big buzzword and had been for years. Lean thinking is a business methodology that aims to provide a new way to think about how to organize every day human activities to deliver more benefits to the customer and value to individuals while eliminating waste.  I decided I wanted to learn as much as I could about lean and to share it with others.  

I immediately signed up to attend the first available training on lean titled “The 5 Whys”. The 5 Whys is a discussion of the problem by asking “Why?” five times (five is a good rule of thumb) in order to drill down from higher-level symptoms to get to the root cause of what happened. As the instructor started explaining the topic, I thought to myself, “What? Is this it? There has to be something more to it.”  It sounded so simplistic and I was amazed that I had never come across the topic before while working as a Project Manager for the past 18 years. Let’s face it, sometimes things don’t go according to plan. Processes break, communication is misunderstood, and the best-designed plans can fall apart. We ask ourselves why? 

Below is an example showing the 5 Whys process. There is a lot more to it, but it helps create an understanding of how it works.

Problem: One of the memorials in Washington D.C. is deteriorating.

  • Why #1 – Why is the monument deteriorating? Because harsh chemicals are frequently used to clean the monument.
  • Why #2 – Why are harsh chemicals needed? To clean off a large number of bird droppings on the monument.
  • Why #3 – Why are there a large number of bird droppings on the monument? Because the large population of spiders in and around the monument is a food source to the local birds.
  • Why #4 – Why is there a large population of spiders in and around the monument? Because vast swarms of insects, on which the spiders feed, are drawn to the monument at dusk.
  • Why #5 – Why are the swarms of insects drawn to the monument at dusk? Because the lighting of the monument in the evening attracts the local insects.

Solution:  Change how the monument is illuminated in the evening to prevent the attraction of swarming insects.

How can you put this into action? 5 Whys involve holding meetings immediately following the resolution of the problem. Following these five steps can get you moving in the right direction.

  1. Ask/schedule a meeting and Invite those affected by the problem/event.
  2. Lead the discussion.
  3. Ask “why” 5 times.
  4. Assign responsibility for solutions.
  5. Communicate your results – This is crucial!  Sharing information with others can help avoid future mistakes.

These problems can be anything from development or design mistakes, software and automation outages, or even SLA’s not being met. Any time something unexpected happens, don’t be afraid to do some sort of root cause analysis. The 5 Whys allows you to focus on problems when they happen and it will help you work towards ensuring they won’t happen again.

I remember reading once that there were few parenting experiences more aggravating than kids repeatedly asking “why?”.  Now that I look back at it, maybe they were on to something! 

For a copy of the 5 Why’s template, or to enter your ideas for improvement, reach out to the CIPA Team by clicking here.  We are here to help you be more productive and in turn, make CCI an even better place to work!

Ann Brasure on behalf of…

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