5 whys and 3 because

The practice of “5 whys” is a popular lean approach to root cause analysis. It can be overly simplistic in some situations but few people would question the virtue of trying to figure out the real causes of a problem as opposed to just treating the symptoms. You can visualize 5 whys as a timeline where the problem you are trying to solve is (in most cases) a recent event and the sequence of causes and effects that led to this event are points on the timeline behind it. The root cause is often something that is up to 5 points back on the timeline, hence the name…

But timelines do not just go into the past, they can be drawn into the future too. Once you believe that you have figured out the root cause of a problem some kind of remediating action needs to be taken. This action will lead to a chain of consequences in the timeline from the present into the future. Put another way; your action will in time become the root cause of a new chain of events. This symmetry between events going back in time and effects going forward is important. When you ponder which action to take in order to “fix” a root cause problem you should always try to follow the chain of effects it will have. Too many times I see people proposing “solutions” to problems that only will work in the short term. In the long term the fix will have so serious side effects that it will actually make things worse.

But the future is uncertain you might object. The past is equally uncertain. Following causes back in time or effects forward are both speculative exercises. You can not prove that something is a root cause and you can not be certain what effects an action will have. The surprising thing is that many people seem to use more energy looking for root causes than they spend on anticipating the consequences of their actions. In my experience you should try to look three steps forward: the effects of the effects of the effects. By that time it should be evident whether the action you are pondering will be more than a short term solution.

Take the “classic” problem of people leaving garbage in a meeting room. The common solution to this is passive-aggressive style communication. Signs are posted and emails sent admonishing everyone to clean up after themselves. The problem with this approach is that there will always be people that ignore these messages. Even if you could get everyone to listen there will always be situations were people honestly leave garbage by mistake. The amount of garbage will often be reduced in the short term only to creep back to previous levels. Only now things will be worse than before because this kind of communication leads to a mentality of: “as long as I do my part, any garbage that I see is not my problem”.

Is there a better solution? One possibility is to create a “mine + 1” culture. When you leave a room you clean your own stuff out and at least one extra thing. This communicates that the task of keeping the office clean is a shared problem that we must cooperate in order to handle.

Niklas Björnerstedt

Posted on 2011.05.18 at 20:31

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About Niklas

Born in Sweden, grew up in New York, lives in Norway. Yes, I have problems with identity, but I do think that my background helps me see things from a different perspective.

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