Small companies can run into big problems. Big companies — bigger, more complex problems. As your company scales, you need to adapt, to avoid wasteful disruptions while preserving agility. When disruptions occur, the “5 Whys” is a flexible, inexpensive, effective technique you can implement to get to the root causes of the problem.

The 5 Whys is a method used to identify the causes of defects, thereby eliminating waste. It originated with the “King of Japanese Inventors,” Sakichi Toyoda and was elaborated upon by engineer Taiichi Ohno, a primary architect of the Toyota Production System (TPS) in the 1950s. Originally called “just-in-time production,” TPS is the precursor to lean manufacturing.

“Ohno saw a problem not as a negative,” according to Toyota, “but, in fact, as ‘a kaizen (continuous improvement) opportunity in disguise.’” In his book, Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production, Ohno describes the essence of TPS and the 5 Whys as the relentless pursuit of the total elimination of waste. And the process is simple. As Ohno put it,

“Ask ‘why’ five times about every matter.”

Makes sense. As Mark Graban writes in his Lean Blog, “The Lean approach is driven by understanding, not forced compliance.” TPS is also driven by an all-embracing philosophy intended to reach not only an entire company but beyond, to other companies and into individual lives. Today, the 5 Whys is even applied to motivational training and the lighting of memorials in Washington, D.C.

Focus on bad process, not bad people

The Lean Startup author Eric Ries considers the 5 Whys as a hallmark of the adaptive organization, which he defines as “one that automatically adjusts its process and performance to current conditions” (227). Noting that training new employees is often seen as a drain on a startup’s resources, Ries demonstrates how a proportional response to each defect revealed by a 5 Whys analysis can eliminate waste. Riese found that techniques like the 5 Whys work “to achieve scale and quality in a just-in-time fashion” (229). 

The 5 Whys Technique

The team at Buffer.com, a social-media management and optimization system, has posted a real-life example of the 5 Whys in action from when they experienced a system-wide outage in 2014:

  1. Why did we go down? A: Because the database became locked.
  2. Why did it become locked? A: Because there were too many db writes.
  3. Why were we doing too many db writes? A: Because this was not foreseen and it wasn’t load tested.
  4. Why wasn’t the change load tested? A: Because we don’t have a development process set up for when we should load test changes.
  5. Why don’t we have a development process for when to load test? A: We’ve never done too much load testing and are hitting new levels of scale.

As you’ll see in their blog, Buffer also does a great job of applying the 5 Whys to people’s daily lives and mapping it onto the company’s core values. That’s in keeping with TPS, a highly integrated, socio-technical system.


A Few Tips

You may find that you’ll need more or fewer than all five Whys to make this work. But an essential component is to implement corrective actions at every level of the findings, as the Buffer team did. Ries provides an excellent run-down of such corrective actions in his Startup Lessons Learned blog. Experienced users of the 5 Whys recommend several practices to ensure success:

  • Get everyone involved who has any relation to the disruption.
  • Appoint a “5 Whys master” to facilitate the discussion. Give this person authority to assign follow-up tasks.
  • Report the results of the analysis to the entire company. Ohno wrote that “the original concepts behind the Toyota production system were aimed at the entirety — not at a part — of a company’s organization” (xi). His coauthor, Setsuo Mito, added, “To eliminate defects, standard operations must be written and posted where everyone can see them” (135).
  • If transparency and telling your story are important to your business, consider blogging publicly about your own 5 Whys investigations.

Red Flags

The 5 Whys isn’t without its critics. Engineer, researcher and author Mike Rother views the 5 Whys not as a problem-solving tool capable of unearthing root causes but rather merely a brainstorming technique. He speculates that the real service of the 5 Whys method is to reveal the current threshold of our knowledge where experimentation should follow.

Jeff Hajek of Velaction Continuous Improvement flags several possible drawbacks to the 5 Whys:

  • It’s not data driven. Results may not be reproducible across different people or different iterations in time.
  • Results are easily biased.
  • Results may be limited to personal experience.
  • The process shouldn’t be exclusive of other methods.

A Problem-Solving Culture

It’s widely agreed that the 5 Whys method is easy to teach and easy to use. Perhaps its best feature is that it focuses on putting desirable outcomes in place. As organizational theorist Russell Ackoff has said, “Finding deficiencies and getting rid of them is not a way of improving performance of the system. […] Basic principle: an improvement program must be directed at what you want, not at what you don’t want.”

What every startup should want is to embody a problem-solving culture, in which — as Taiichi Ohno would say — obstacles are seen as learning opportunities for continuous improvement.

When it takes a mentor steeped in the values of lean startup to guide you through your own root-cause analysis, give tekMountain at CastleBranch a call.

This blog was produced by the tekMountain Team of Sean AhlumMike PattonRod WhisnerAmanda Sipes, and Zach Cioffi with lead writer Bill DiNome

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