How to Solve Difficult Problems by Using the 5 Why’s Technique

Using Root Cause Analysis to simplify problem solving

We all encounter problems on a daily basis; no milk in the fridge, late for work, no money for parking. They may seem trivial, but if they keep happening, they are difficult problems (or bad habits) because we haven’t figured out how to solve/prevent them in our lives.

Yet, the same technique for solving such seemingly simple problems, can also be used for much bigger problems that we want to tackle in our lives…

“If you don’t ask the right questions, you don’t get the right answers. A question asked in the right way often points to its own answer.” Edward Hodnet

Discovering the Root Cause

Sakichi Toyoda was born in Kosai, Japan in 1867. He was an inventor, industrialist and is most famous for being the founder of Toyota Industries. He is also known as one of the fathers of the Japanese industrial revolution that occurred in the early 20th century.

[Photo credit: Daily Telegraph]

He invented various weaving machines (including the one above) which implemented the principle of “Jidoka,” where the machine used ‘intelligent automation’ (autonomation) to stop when it found a fault.

Toyota implemented a “go and see” methodology, which they still use today, that allowed them to become one of the worlds biggest and efficient manufactures using the following template:

  1. Detect fault.
  2. Stop.
  3. Fix/correct the immediate issue.
  4. Investigate root cause analysis and introduce countermeasure.

It can be easy to find faults and instantly paper over the cracks, however looking into the root cause of why an issue occurred is often the step that we don’t like/want to undertake. This is where the 5 Why’s Technique comes in.

The 5 Why’s Technique

The 5 Whys Technique is easy to use (I have been using it for the past few months and it has made a huge difference in solving problems/issues in my life and work).

Once you know how to use it, you can use it as an effective tool for uncovering the root of a problem. It can be used to solve problems in life, love, work e.t.c. and all you need is to ask why five times.

Start with a problem and ask “why” it is occurring. Make sure that your answer is grounded in fact, then ask “why” again. Continue the process asking “why” four more times, until you reach the root cause of the problem. From here you can identify a counter-measure that prevents it recurring as seen in the example below.

One of the key benefits of the 5 Why’s Technique is that it uses ‘counter-measures’ rather than solutions. A solution is an action that merely seeks to deal with a situation whereas a counter-measure seeks to prevent the problem arising again. Therefore, it is smarter way to solve problems (including future problems).

Even though the technique is based on answering the questions with facts, it can initially be hard to disentangle any personal feelings or opinions. This is ultimately because we as humans are gifted with the power to make decisions, it can also lead to slightly different paths towards the root cause.

Sometimes it might feel easier to just answer “I don’t know,” but to get to the heart of the issue and actually solve the problem, it is imperative that we look at things objectively and investigate deeper than just a couple of questions.

Dealing with Curve-balls

At university I had a study partner who was a really close friend. It used to infuriate me when she would constantly ask “why is X happening,” followed up by another “why?” and another e.t.c (inadvertently using the 5 whys technique). In the 1st year she smashed her exams, I barely passed.

So the following year I took her lead and took the time to find out why things occurred. When the summer exams threw curve-balls at me, I was able to cope with them easily, we both walked away with 1sts that year, because we truly understood why things happened.

Most problems or situations that occur in our lives have a human element to them as to why they have occurred. If we take the above example, the root cause was ‘forgetting to replace batteries,’ could potentially lead into a blame game. This is looking at problem solving from the wrong angle.

We need to look at problem solving in a positive way. If we have found the root-cause and can come up with a simple counter-measure that can be implemented easily/instantly then we have succeeded in such a short space of time.

Have a practise using the 5 Why’s Technique with these few examples:

- I don’t have any money

- I was late for work

- I haven’t seen my friends for a long time

It really does help you see clarity in situations where scratching beneath the surface makes all of the difference to creating sustainable long-term solutions to difficult problems.

Butterfly Effect

It might feel like you are a little child, constantly asking “why?,” but if you develop an understanding of why problems occur in your life then you can prevent them so they don’t even happen.

There are so many things in our lives that we dismiss, stop, miss out on, start and don’t finish that we can easily throw blame to a number of superficial things.

However, if we truly understood the problems/barriers in our way, then we would realise that the tiniest solution, can open the flood-gates and let great things happen.

Paul Davies writes about the search for living a happier and healthier life. For more ideas and easy systems you can implement to change your life then join his free newsletter.

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