Discovering the Root Cause of a Problem

A past blog post touched on a process called ‘The 5 Whys’ which is best implemented as 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:

The vehicle will not start. (the problem)

  1. Why? – The battery is dead. (first why)
  2. Why? – The alternator is not functioning. (second why)
  3. Why? – The alternator belt has broken. (third why)
  4. Why? – The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (fourth why)
  5. Why? – The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (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.

This happened with a problem I had that caused my Mini Cooper to have a major engine repair.

Problem: The car stopped and the engine won’t start.

  1. Why? Timing chain broke.
  2. Why? Timing chain tensioner stopped working.
  3. Why? Not enough oil to the timing chain tensioner.
  4. Why? Oil level was too low.
  5. Why? Didn’t check it regularly and the engine uses oil over time.
  6. Why? There is no warning light telling me to check the oil when it gets too low.
  7. Why? Ask BMW – who manufactures the Mini!

What’s interesting is that if you Google “Mini Cooper death rattle” you will lots of discussion that stops after Why #3! The internet chat thinks the problem is the timing chain tensioner. The real problem is that the engine consumes oil over time and there is no warning light to tell drivers to top up the oil.

Bottom line: Try The Five Whys on a business problem that surfaces and see how deep you can go. And if you drive a Mini Cooper, go check your oil.

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Author: Paul Foster
Paul's life’s purpose is to bring more cash, freedom and happiness to independent business owners. Paul wants to learn about your toughest business challenges and frustrations so he can help you tackle them.

1 Comment

  • Thanks, Paul, for all the great information on your blog and FB page. Much appreciate it! Will pass it along to others.

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