Discovering the Root Cause of a Problem

Quite often in business, "The problem is not the problem". It takes persistence and effort to drill down to uncover the true root of the problem and create the solution.

A process called “The 5 Whys” is a tool to find the root cause of a problem.

Quite often, “The problem is not the problem”.

It was developed by Sakichi Toyoda, a Japanese inventor. It became part of the Toyota Production System and then Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma. It is now part of the Lean Startup methodology too.

The process is quite simple: When a problem shows up, ask “Why?” five times.

Wikipedia provides a good example of the process:

We received a poor Google Review (the problem)

  1. Why? – A customer wasn’t happy (first why)
  2. Why? – They received poor customer service (second why)
  3. Why? – The sales staff was not properly trained in the product (third why)
  4. Why? – The owner and management did not properly train the sales staff (fourth why)
  5. Why? – Proper training was overlooked due to a lack of an onboarding training system (fifth why, a root cause)

Not every problem takes 5 whys to get to the root cause. It could take 7.

This tool is useful because it helps you understand what is a “symptom” of a problem and what is the “root” cause of a problem. Most times when the “problem” is not the problem, it is a symptom of another problem.

Too often we look for the easiest solution to a problem. We come up with solutions that are either familiar or easy to fix, stopping too soon and not digging deep enough to discover the real problem and the best solution.

Bottom line: Try The Five Whys on a business problem that surfaces and see how deep you can go.

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