11/04/2012 - 09:56

Searching for root causes

11/04/2012 - 09:56


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One of my favourite sayings in business is that everyone has two jobs – the one you do and improving the one you do.

One of my favourite sayings in business is that everyone has two jobs – the one you do and improving the one you do.

One of the simplest ways to improve what you do is to find and solve problems. 

Good problem solving smooths pathways to faster execution and better quality and reduces the frustration experienced by your staff when dealing with the same issues every day.

Some problems are simple niggles no-one has bothered to fix before – the location of the photocopier or removing an unneeded step to process a customer’s order.

Others may be more challenging like dealing with ingrained complexity in your core processes, coping with escalating costs or too many debtors.

Either way, if we are going to take the time and invest energy on fixing a problem, we want to make sure we can get to the root cause, not just a symptom.

A simple and useful tool to help you do this is the ‘five whys’ – asking the question why until you reach the root cause. 

Then you can make a plan to solve the problem. 

Looking for root causes

Imagine you have a problem with a growing number of customers not paying their bills.

At face value, it may seem the cause is that your customers can’t be bothered to pay on time. 

However, if you got some of your accounts payable staff in the room and went through a five whys with them, you may discover a different root cause, as follows:

So, the problem is customers are not paying their bills.

Why? We are sending out invoices with the incorrect amounts.

Why? The prices in our contracts are not up to date.

Why? Revised contracts are waiting on the legal department for approval.

Why? Legal department has a large workload with revisions and changes to multiple contracts.

Why? Large demand for legal services and the department has no administrative support.

Once we have established the root cause of the problem appears to be pressure on the legal team, we can begin to look for solutions, such as providing extra support or appointing another qualified person in the company to sign off on contracts.  

Another example might look like this:

You notice your latest product has a high number of errors.

 Why? New operators are not fully trained.

Why? We need to get them on to the equipment ASAP.

Why? We are short-staffed and production is a priority.

Why? There are a number of possible answers here. One might be that there is a boom on in Western Australia and it’s hard to find staff while another might be that high demand from customers is pushing production to the limit. 

Asking why at this level will bring up issues you probably can’t solve easily.

However, you could make a plan to increase staff levels; refine your induction and training procedures; ensure new employees have better guidance on expected quality; or a combination of all these.

How to do a five whys

Write down the problem on a white board or large piece of paper.

Ask a couple of people who have some understanding of the problem or the area where it is occurring to help you.

Ask yourselves: why does this happen?

Write all the causes that occur to you alongside your initial problem

Now tackle each cause in turn: why does this particular cause happen?

Keep asking why until you get to a root cause or something you can’t change.

Then tackle the other causes.

You will know when you find a root cause because if you fix it, the problem will go away.

Try not to get hung up on things you can’t change, like government policy, global economic factors, and weather conditions.

It’s much more effective to focus on those causes you can change.

Note number five is just a guide – you might get to the root cause after two whys or it might take 15. 

Of course, this is not a scientific process.

It relies on the person or team doing the five whys to have good quality opinions and observations about the problem. 

On the plus side, it’s quick and logical and encourages deeper thought about a problem. 

If you have any doubt about its conclusions, you should always do further investigation, preferably using data.


Gillian Bester is a director of Spring Board (WA) Pty Ltd, which uses continuous improvement to help businesses take a leap forward.
Contact Gillian on 0414 743389



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