There are many ways to go about problem solving, especially in a business setting. But one method that has proven effective in manufacturing is the 5 Whys. It is a problem-solving tool that is used to dig deep and explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a problem. The goal is to identify the root cause of the problem, so you can resolve the issue rather than implementing a solution to a symptom or an effect.
Sakichi Toyoda, a Japanese industrialist and founder of Toyota Industries, is credited with developing this tool in the 1930s. However, I believe the 5 Whys tool has been around much longer and has likely been used by mankind since we could ask questions—just ask any parent. Curious toddlers often ask why until they gain a full understanding of what they want to know.
Adults often stop asking why before they get to the root cause when trying to solve a problem. I think they are often impatient and try to quickly fix everything. Kids, on the other hand, really want to understand and learn.
Before we get started with the 5 Whys (sometimes called 5Y), let's review a few terms.
As mentioned above, adults are often quick to identify a problem, come up with a fix for that problem, and not solve the root cause. Let me give you an example of this.
Problem: You are involved in a car accident on your way to work
Why? – You were late for work
Why? – You woke up late
Why? – Your alarm clock did not go off
Why? – You didn’t set it when going to bed
Why? – You forgot to activate the alarm last night
To solve the problem of getting in the car accident, you need to address the root cause, not the problem, effects, or causes.
Forgetting to set the alarm clock is the root cause. If you had activated the alarm clock, you would not have slept late or needed to hurry to get to work and would have avoided the accident. Eliminating that trigger would have removed all other actions and causes.
When confronting and dealing with problems in your daily work, take a moment to step back and ask the 5 Whys, get to the root cause, and then develop and implement your solution.
In the example, the solution could be to place a note on your pillow that reminds you to activate your alarm clock before going to sleep.
When I discuss the 5 Whys with Acuity customers, they often have a look of disbelief. They wonder how such a simple solution could help solve complex manufacturing problems. Though many problems are complex, the key is to truly understand the root cause of the problem. If you don't solve the root cause, you are solving causes and effects.
Tips and tricks:
A root cause is not always identified. In that case, you start by implementing a solution to the last question you answered. If the problem persists, start asking why again. Maybe this time you will get to the root cause.
No problem-solving tool guarantees 100% success in identifying the root cause. However, it is always worth trying the 5 Whys.