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The Five Whys is a root cause analysis purportedly originated in the 1950s by Toyota. But the simplicity of the methodology surely indicates origins much earlier than auto manufacturing. Since the earliest days of cognition, humans have been using logical problem solving methods in some fashion. (Think cavemen and campfires.)

The method is very simple. Simply start with a problem that needs to be solved and ask “Why” five time. With each question and subsequent answer you’re brought closer to the root cause.  Most proponents believe the root cause is almost always a process issue related to human error or decision making.  That doesn’t really seem surprising.

 Real World Example

We created a bi-lingual version for one of our products. It was packaged in a plain white box package vs a retail store package. The customer was selling the product on their web site.  The box contained instructions and warranties in English and French to address US and Canadian markets.

Problem: The web merchant received the package and discovered the instruction sheet was in French only.

Q: Why was there no English instruction sheet?
A: The factory did not clearly understand the requirements.
Q: Why was the requirement not understood?
A: Human error, a simple mis-communication (not uncommon with foreign factories).
Q: Why was the problem not discovered by 3rd party QC?
A: We were not utilizing a 3rd party QC.
Q: Why was the problem not discovered by our QC process in the US?
A: The shipment was delivered directly to the customer.

Summary: This simple example would fit well into a Fishbone (Ishikawa) diagram. There are multiple points in time that offer solutions, such as:

  1. Create a specification to provide the factory that is clear and unambiguous. Ask them to restate the requirements in their own words (English of course) in writing.
  2. Utilize a 3rd party QC. This adds to the product cost and there is always the possibility that the 3rd party inspector does not fully understand the requirements.
  3. Start an internal policy to inspect all shipments received in the US before they go to the customer by routing all goods through your warehouse.

All three solutions could be instituted; it just costs time and money.

To solve our immediate problem, we shipped the customer extra instruction sheets and they packed the sheets with each shipment to an end customer. There was a remediation fee and our net profit on the job was minimal (meaning zero).  But the relationship was salvaged. Every customer has a fee structure to charge the supplier for situations that deviate from the norm.  Some customer are very lenient and others seem to make this part of their financial model.  But, if I were in the customer’s shoes, I could probably tell horror stories about incompetent supplies that killed my business.

Out of Excuses

It’s tempting to extend this methodology to life as well as business. Another Real World example of my own, trivial perhaps: How do I develop a habit of regular exercise when it takes too much time from my schedule and is boring beyond belief?

Q: Why does exercise take too much time?
A: The workout time plus the time required to drive to the gym, find parking, check-in, etc.
Q: How can the drive time, parking, etc be reduced or eliminated? (sometimes “how” is a better question)
A: Purchase equipment for home use. (A close friend provided an elliptical machine that wasn’t being used)
Q: Why is the exercise so boring?
A: I need something to occupy my mind such as a wall mounted TV’s to watch.
Q: Why can’t you have a wall mounted TV at home, or listen to an iPod.
A: With a tablet computer, I can listen to books, radio broadcasts, pod-casts or stream anything from Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, etc. I can binge watch 5 seasons of Breaking Bad.

Having run out of excuses, I started getting on the elliptical machine 6 days a week.

It isn’t sexy, but the Five Whys method is still useful after all these years.  You must ask the right question and search for brutally honest answers without anyone becoming defensive or pointing fingers.

rating 4 stars
Next week, Brainstorming’s Epic Fail.  (Don’t the same mistake that thousands of others have made.)

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