The Worst Root Cause Problem Solver in the Animal World Is… Who?


We all know the beaver is “the engineer of the animal kingdom.” That's why MIT has a beaver as a mascot… it's an engineer who likes to build things and is generally nocturnal, an apt description of MIT students.

A survey taken by the National Geographic Society has found that the owl, however, is the worst problem solver in the animal world.

Why? Because they only ask “who?” instead of “why?”

OK, there was no National Geographic study. But why let that get in the way of a good joke?

Why let a good joke get in the way of a serious point?

The Lean methodology teaches us to be hard on the process, not on the person. Lean teaches us to look at the system instead of assuming a person was being stupid or careless or lazy, which led to an error.

This builds on Dr. Deming's teaching us that approximately 94% of defects are caused by the system, not an individual. The patient safety movement reinforces that we need to stop looking for “bad apples” – blaming and punishing individuals – and instead focus on systems and processes that prevent errors.

Lean teaches us the concepts, methods, and mindsets of “mistake proofing” — setting up a process so it's more difficult, if not impossible, to make a mistake. That shows “respect for people” to set up good systems instead of just lecturing people to be more careful.

Lean and “The Lean Startup” approach teach us to “ask why five times” when solving problems. Using “the five whys” is more likely to get us to a root cause than asking “who?” and blaming.

Yet, old habits of blaming individuals die hard. I see executives, even in organizations that are “getting Lean.” People need to perhaps call a “time out” when they hear an executive calling an employee who made a mistake “stupid” or saying “so-and-so was being a dingbat” or things like that.

Don't be an owl. Be a good Lean problem solver.

Ask “why?” not “who?”

The image above was created with a stock image that I purchased and have the rights to. The image with text is copyrighted, 2014 by Constancy, Inc. Feel free to share the image, but without any modifications.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. The mice go to the owl.
    “We’ve got a problem, you see. Everybody is picking on us and we aren’t able to defend ourselves. We are fed up with it, what shall we do?”
    The owl is like:”Why don’t you just turn into hedgehogs? Nobody is picking on hedgehogs.”
    “Yes, yes… but how do we do that?”
    “Well, that’s not my concern, I’m only dealing with strategic issues.”


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