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The 5 Whys – in Teams: Helping Teams to Grow

Posted on the 12 September 2011 by Combi31 @combi31

The 5 Whys – in teams: helping teams to grow

If you work in a production or engineering domain, chances are that you use the 5 Whys in your quality or production process.

It is certainly one of many useful tools for the discovery and treatment of problems in a technical or even a client-facing setting.

If you have never heard of the 5 whys then here is a very basic and dirty introduction:

The 5 whys was created by Sakichi Toyoda and is an integral part of the ‘Toyota System’ of production management and forms part of Kaizen and 6 Sigma methodology.

The idea is that when a technical problem is encountered, by repeatedly asking a set of 5 whys, it is possible to get to the brunt of the issue.

That said, the number of Whys that can be used in the process is not carved in stone, at times less than 5 are sufficient and at time more than 5 can be used, the importance is getting at the root cause.

So, it all sounds pretty logical and here is an example from WIKI:

The following example demonstrates the basic process:

  • My car 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 has never been replaced. (fourth why)
  5. Why? – I have not been maintaining my car according to the recommended service schedule. (fifth why, a root cause)

The most important aspect is that the questions are asked and explored in a way that by-passes common assumptions – in the example above, we could assume that “the battery is old” and stay there, change the battery for a new one and encounter the exact same problem again at a later date.

If we don’t pursue the questioning, we will arrive at incomplete and inconsequential results and rarely at the root of the problem.

If we transfer this type of problem to a client-services context we can also assume, at time things that are not going to help solve problems:

The client has refused a delivery of our textile

1. Why? – There too many quality faults. (1st why)

2. Why? – The PPM was too high to be accepted. (2nd Why)

3. Why? – The quality inspection is carried out at the end of the production line. (3rd Why)

4. Why? – We haven’t trained the operators to carry out ongoing quality checks. (4th Why)

5. Why? – We haven’t a clear Quality Assurance policy in place (5th why – perhaps the root cause or perhaps the starting point of a second 5 whys)

Of course in this example we could go further or perhaps go more into the Why questions at each stage – the importance being to ensure that we have less rejects from the client which could, eventually damage our relationship and our reputation with the client.

So, that is the 5 whys in a production / engineering / quality setting.

Could the 5 whys be used in another framework, such as people development, and more particularly in a team coaching environment?

Before we look at this, let’s have a look at the criticisms of the system.

The 5 whys has been criticised: For the tendency of investigators to stop at symptoms rather than investigating the root causes of problems.

For the inability to lead investigators beyond what is unknown. For the fact that often results are not replicable, in as much as different people asking the same questions could come up with different causes of a problem.

For the lack of cooperation that investigators can come up against when asking the really difficult questions that people don’t want to hear the answers to.

So it’s fairly evident, how the 5 whys can be used in a technical setting, even with “humans in the loop” dynamics.In Team Coaching the 5 whys, is arguably, one of many diagnostic tools that can help in the formulation of objectives and action plans to solve some of the more complex issues around team working in an organisational setting.

Imagine a team where the manager has been criticised for his over-direct communication style which has led to dysfunction in the team.

A possible diagnosis via a 5 why technique could result in the following:

The team isn’t working together.

1. Why? – We don’t communicate.

2. Why? – We don’t have the time to communicate vital elements of information.

3. Why? – We are always fighting fires

4. Why? – We don’t plan far enough ahead

5. Why? – We don’t spend enough process time together.

As you can see we are starting to get there, although inconclusively, but the doors are open for further investigation and perhaps further interpretation.

The key, as in most organisations, is the failure to spend enough process time together.

Standing back from problems and issues without getting sucked into the day-to-day urgencies that surround most of our professional lives.

Taking a step out, is often thought of as unnecessary wasting of time that could be better spent on tackling issues.

The problem is that when we are tackling issues, we are often putting fires out with little regard to how they were started in the first place and how we can avoid them spreading and prevent the same mistakes happening again.

Errors committed once can be justly termed as errors or mistakes and are vital to learning.

If they happen continually, then there is a problem as we are not learning and the only way to break the cycle is to take a step out and turn the kaleidoscope to see the issues in another light.

The 5 whys, can be a useful tool to facilitate the investigation of what prevents us from learning as long as the investigation remains objective and free of finger-pointing.

Problems can also arise when the technique is used solely as a deduction method, especially if each step is not addressed fully before moving to the next step.

Questions need to be well formulated in order to provide a clear and satisfactory answer if we are to ever arrive at the root cause.

As George Bernard Shaw was famously quoted as saying,

“Some men see things as they are and say, “Why?”

I dream of things that never were and say, “Why not?”

Another take on the 5 Whys, could indeed, be the utilisation of the 5 WHY NOTs!

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The 5 Whys – in teams: helping teams to grow
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