5whys and how to find the root cause of a problem

What are 5whys and root causes?

5whys is a method of Toyota to find the root causes of a problem. When most people think about their problems they just try to identify the source.

They feel that the problem arose because of certain uncalculated actions on their or someone else’s part. What they miss are the root causes of those problems which can be identified by 5whys.

To solve them they do some surface-level fixes so the problem goes away. For now. The problem with this way of thinking is that it is only a short term view of things. 

Such an approach to problem-solving will almost always result in the problem returning sooner or later and possibly worse than it was before.

Why does this happen? It is because we only have a superficial understanding of the problem. We are only focussing on the source of the problem and not it’s the root cause.

Thus we keep dealing with the symptoms applying short term bandaids while the real problem keeps getting worse.

Source vs Cause

The source of the problem is not the cause. To figure out the causes we need to go a few levels deeper in our thinking. The source of the problem is just the symptom that we deal with.

It’s the urgent needs that hamper us in the present moment be it by reducing productivity or cause interruptions in our way of life.

The urgent problems do need to be dealt with however it is the truly important issue that needs most of our attention.

The way we see a problem is the problem

Stephen R. Covey said it best in his book Seven habits of highly effective people when he said that the way we see a problem is the problem.

“How do you do it?” Teach me the techniques,” What they are really saying is “Give me some quick fix advice or solution that will relieve the pain in my own situation.”

Stephen R. Covey

They may find people who will meet their wants and teach these things, and for short time skills and techniques may appear to work. They may eliminate some of the cosmetic or acute problems through social aspirin and band-aids.

But the underlying chronic condition remains and eventually, new acute symptoms will appear. The more people are into quick fix and focus on the acute problems and pain, the more that very approach contributes to an underlying chronic condition.

Urgent vs important

While we are so busy doing things that are urgent and require our complete focus we lose sight of what’s important. It’s as if we are so busy climbing a ladder that at the end of the climb we find ourselves on top of the wrong wall.

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Urgent issues do need our attention but they should not eclipse the truly important tasks.

For more understanding read our blog on long-term philosophy and how that helps us reach our goals faster.

When we begin to focus on truly important things we start to make massive strides towards our goals. But how do we find what these important things are? How do we analyze the problem with a deeper perspective?

The 5whys

In his book, The Toyota Way author Jeffrey K. Liker tells us about a simple and effective way in which the people in Toyota analyze problems i.e. the 5whys method.

Firstly they go to where the problem is and look for themselves. That is called Genchi Genbutsu. This is the source of the problem. They then try to figure out what caused it by analyzing it and asking why it happened. This is how they figure out the cause of the first problem.

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That is where the traditional method ends. People in Toyota don’t stop there. They go to the cause of the first problem which leads them to a source higher up the chain. 

What at first might seem like a technical problem may end up as a management problem. By doing this inquiry five times they reach towards the root cause of the problem. This can be 3,7 or any no of questions that you might need to figure out the root cause.

Corrective steps are taken on every level and the process by which work is done is standardized in a way that the problem doesn’t repeat itself in the future.

An illustration of 5whys at play

let’s say you ran a red light on your way at work and were stopped and fined. How can you apply 5whys here?

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1) why did you run the red light?

answer- you were late to work

2) why were you late for work?

answer- you woke up late

3) why did you wake up late?

answer- you didn’t sleep on time 

4)why didn’t you sleep on time?

answer- you were finishing up some pending work that was supposed to be done before

5) why did you have pending work.

answer- you were not consistent with the work at hand and it piled up.

We begin the solution by applying fixes at every step of the problem that we understood by the 5whys. 

1)Start by leaving on time for work

2)Waking up before time. 

3)sleeping on time 

4)Starting days top heavy where you deal with most of the work at the beginning of your day. 

5)Building up a character and work ethic that prioritizes consistency in the work we do. Thus we work with consistency despite the temporary moods we might have. 

This simple example tells us how the root cause of our problems is much deeper and requires more thought out analysis in the way we work.

Looking at the example provided in the book The Toyota way

The problem is that there is oil on the shop floor

Using the 5whys analysis-

1)There is a puddle of oil on the shop floor

countermeasure -clean up the oil

2)Because the machine is leaking oil

countermeasure –fix the machine

3)because the gasket has deteriorated

countermeasure- replace the gasket

4)Because gaskets bought were made of inferior material

countermeasure- change gasket specifications

5)We got a good deal (price) on buying those gaskets

countermeasure- Change purchasing policies

6)Because the purchasing agent gets evaluated on short term cost savings

countermeasure- Change evaluating policy for purchasing agents

5whys In our life

5whys isn’t just a management tool for business-related problems. Using this approach we might even be able to encounter the cold harsh truths in our behavior that we at first might not want to accept.

If we can face up to our flaws and begin taking steps in correcting them we open ourselves up to limitless possibilities. 5whys help us determine the root causes of the problems in our life so we know where to focus our efforts on. 

In Conclusion

This week as you go through life look at the problems that arise in front of you and try introspect deeply as to where the problem started.

There might be many small things that you are applying bandaids on instead of working to solve them for good. Most of us are looking for shortcuts or tools and techniques to resolve chronic problems in our life.

Instead of relying on them we can start by living consciously. Let go of superficial aspects and observe things deeply. Separate yourself from the emotional reactions and instead choose your responses to circumstances.

 As Bodhi Sanders said in his book Martial arts wisdom

 “When you react, you let others control you. When you respond, you are in control.” 

Bodhi Sanders

We urge you to explore what your callings are. Do you possess the courage to chase them? We provide a free ebook called The perfect beginning that might help you in finding those callings.

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Well, that’s all for this post. Have a good day and a good life.