radical Briefing 0034: The (Other) 5 Whys

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If you’ve spent time in the startup or engineering world, you might be familiar with the venerated root-cause analysis technique known as the 5 Whys. The practice was originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda and became an important piece of the problem-solving training associated with the revolutionary Toyota Production System and manufacturing philosophy.

System architect Taiichi Ohno, who saw problem clarity and root-cause analysis as critical to both continuous improvement and lasting solutions, said that “by repeating why five times, the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear.” The idea here is that the essential nature of the problem is often unexpected or non-obvious and our go-to fixes, often superficial and in many cases, addressed to symptoms rather than underlying causes.

In application, the 5 Whys takes what might initially appear as a technical problem (“X feature or system failed.”) and often reveals an underlying set of human and process problems (“Testing, communication, training, budget, etc. aren’t aligned to support valued outcomes.”). The technique is simple and effective as a post-mortem analysis, and if used with precision, the 5 Whys can illuminate multiple potential points for effective intervention and problem-solving while also suggesting the right proportional allocation of investments in possible solutions at each level.

Still widely used at Toyota, the 5 Whys technique has flourished within the Lean Startup and Kanban communities as well. There’s some variation in how it’s practiced, but the majority of usage is the same: as a relentlessly effective tool for understanding what when wrong, why it went wrong, and how you might actually address the root cause of the problem.

But the power implicit in the 5 Whys isn’t limited to the post-mortem. At be radical, we like to use the same technique with a different, futural orientation. Rather than looking back at what has already gone wrong, we use the 5 Whys as a means of achieving deeper clarity on what we want to go right looking ahead.

When we convene a learning exchange, we’ll often use the 5 Whys at the outset of the program as a rapid bonding activity for participants who might come from different perspectives but actually share common goals. We’ll ask each participant to meet with a partner and simply share what they hope to achieve through the program, and we’ll ask each partner to respond with five iterative whys probing for deeper explanation and introspection. Typically, a participant or client who starts by sharing a practical, near-term goal (“I want to better understand how emerging technologies and social trends might affect my industry.”) finds a deeper motivation, value, or hope at each level.

In our experience, a quick interaction like this promotes a set of interrelated positive results: it simultaneously (1) establishes an environment conducive to questioning and introspection, (2) fosters connection within the cohort at a surprisingly deep level surprisingly quickly, and (3) it gives us an opportunity to listen to what the participants really want and truly value–which gives us the opportunity to deliver greater value in return.

We’ve had excellent purpose-oriented exchanges with colleagues and friends using the 5 Whys to structure conversations beginning with big-picture, open-ended questions like “What does the future need?” or “Why will your organization be relevant in 10 years?” We’ve also used the technique with clients to clarify the purpose, tighten the scope, and sharpen the goals of major organizational change initiatives.

Working as a facilitator for another organization’s executive education program a while back, I was lucky enough to actually have a gentleman from Toyota in the room. He joined in my re-purposed 5 Whys activity with a knowing smile, and when I asked him about his experience with the technique, he seemed pleased to find us using it beyond the context of the production post-mortem. He explained that as he (and now his children) practiced it, asking why was about a commitment to truly understanding, to questioning, and to listening as a way of life.

We couldn’t agree more.

radically yours,

Jeffrey and the be radical team

P.S. The next cohort of our acclaimed open enrollment program FutureFWD convenes January 11, 2021. We still have seats available, but all previous programs have sold out in advance. We’d love to have you in the conversation.


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