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.

My Five Whys

Joel Spolsky, in case you hadn’t noticed, just writes intelligent insightful stuff. He seems to have been on a blogging break for the past few weeks, and I’ve actually missed him. Now he’s back, and his latest piece has my brain thumping. In it, he speaks about the 5 Whys, originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota.

(digression: When I was young, my father drove a Toyota. It must have been 20 years old. The antenna was missing, and the frame was beginning to rust away, but the car just kept going. When I went to buy a car, I looked at the Ford Focus. In Israel the Focus is actually a very sweet car; we get the European models, totally different than the US models. The Focus drove tight, had lots of power, and was kitted out with all sorts of cool stuff inside. Then I tried the Toyota Corolla. It wasn’t as sexy, it didn’t have all the gear – it was boring, and it was the same price. Then I realized – they must have put the money in to something. If it wasn’t the MP3 radio and kitted out interior, it was probably the things you can’t see – like the engine. I bought the Toyota.)

The idea behind ‘5 whys’ is to keep asking ‘why’ until you get to the root cause of a problem. There’s nothing holy about 5, fell free to add another few whys if it suits you. I decided to tackle a problem with the 5 whys, and at the risk of being overly self-referential, here’s what I came up with:

Problem: I’m not blogging on a regular basis

  • Why? I find myself not possessed with ideas worth communicating.
  • Why? I get involved in routine things, and not things that stretch my brain.
  • Why? I somehow feel like doing really interesting things would be wasting time.
  • Why? I get caught in a hamster mindset, where I have to do things that are immediately demonstrably valuable, but not really long term contributions.
  • Why? I don’t maintain consciousness of the unique contribution my soul can make to the world.

The question I’m holding now is what to do with the realization. Better yet – knowing a low-level cause, and that cause being a matter of ingrained outlook, how do I bring myself into the more healthy mindset that I’d like to? How do I plant, deep down, the realization that the real valuable contributions I have to make to the world are coming from within?