It's kind of neat to see a column about the “5 whys” method in a general business publication (link above). The consultant and professor in the article gives proper credit to Toyota and Taiichi Ohno, but curiously calls it the “Japanese Manufacturing Technique” (as if that's a proper name). I've near heard that phrase… something he coined rather than just “Lean Manufacturing” or the “Toyota Production System?”
Anyway, the article gives a good example of a 5 Whys analysis from Ohno. In my experience, 5 Whys is hardly ever that neat and tidy (you can hit some dead ends or have multiple branches in the answers), but you can get some real breakthroughs.
Going through a 5 Whys exercise with a hospital group once, we asked “Why are hand hygiene practices not followed 100% of the time?” One real breakthrough was a comment “Our hands and arms are full when leaving a patient room sometimes.” We asked why that was, and kept asking why — turns out that carts were not always available, so the follow up would be a 5S initiative around proper storage locations for carts and having the discipline to keep them there. Instead of browbeating nurses for not washing, our job was to make it easier for them to do the right thing. We thought that was good problem solving — or more effective than hanging more signs at least.
The linked article also talks about some of the downsides of asking why, especially if you're challenging technical experts or “lords,” as he calls them. People can get defensive. You really have to watch your tone of voice when asking why. I've found it's better to ask “Why is it that….” instead of “Why do YOU…” because people take the latter as direct criticism.
Asking “why?” in private or 1×1 can also be less embarrassing than asking someone in front of a group. You always have to be aware of politics and sensitivity. Most of us aren't an Ohno, being comfortable yelling or screaming at someone.
What are your experiences with the 5 Whys, good or bad?
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