Why do the 5 Whys Work?

Earlier this year, I wrote about the “5 Whys”, a problem-resolution technique honed at Toyota.  Eric Reis yesterday posted his experiences using the 5 whys in his own organization, and adds an important piece the I wasn’t previously aware of.  The technique starts by taking a problem and asking ‘why’ 5 times, successively.  Why did the server crash?  It didn’t have the latest patch.  Why didn’t it have the latest patch?  Our policy is to only patch once a quarter.  Why do we only patch once a quarter? We don’t have enough staff time to patch more often. etc. This process helps you identify some of the root, systemic causes of the problem.  What Eric adds is the following:

So far, this isn’t much different from the kind of analysis any competent operations team would conduct for a site outage. The next step is this: you have to commit to make a proportional investment in corrective action at every level of the analysis.

There’s where the technique hits the pavement.  Is it better for an organization to have deep knowledge of their problems if they don’t act on them?  There are usually ingrained habits and policies that go against addressing problems occuring on the deep policy and organizational functioning level, but it’s what seperates dynamic living organizations from walking corpses.

It’s important to tease out the knowledge, and even more important to be comitted to acting on it.

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