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Five Whys to Leadership Challenges

Why notImage by Pete Reed via Flickr

It seems like every time I turned around the last couple of weeks, someone was talking about the Five Whys technique - online, in print, in person.

Why? I took it as a sign that I was supposed to blog about it.

You've undoubtedly heard of Five Whys: the problem-solving technique developed by Toyota after World War II to improve its manufacturing process. Its goal: determine a root cause of a defect or problem. It's used a lot within Kaizen, Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma.

My take? Leaders can also tap into this tool to improve their day-to-day problem solving. It's a great tool for anyone, any time there's a problem.

A common, easy to understand example looks like this:

  1. My car will not start. (the problem)
  2. Why? The battery is dead. (first why)
  3. Why? The alternator is not functioning. (second why)
  4. Why? The alternator belt has broken. (third why)
  5. Why? The alternator was well beyond its useful service life and has never been replaced. (fourth why)
  6. Why? I have not been maintaining my car according to the recommended service schedule. (fifth why, a root cause)

What does use of Five Whys look like real life, real time, for leaders? A terrific example is how Jeff Bezos used Five Whys in-the-moment after a safety incident during his annual walk-through at the Amazon.com fulfillment center. The story goes:

When Bezos heard about an associate injuring a finger on the line, Bezos walked to a white board and asked:

  • Why did the associate damage his thumb?
    •  Because his thumb got caught in the conveyor.
  • Why did his thumb get caught in the conveyor?
    •  Because he was chasing his bag, which was on a running conveyor.
  • Why did he chase his bag?
    •  Because he placed his bag on the conveyor, but it then turned-on by surprise.
  • Why was his bag on the conveyor?
    •  Because he used the conveyor as a table.

Likely root cause of the associate's injured thumb? He needed a table, didn't have one, so he used the conveyor as a table. Solution to the problem: provide tables along the line.

The technique certainly has its shortcomings. And valuable tips for overcoming them. But the benefits of this simple technique holds lots of promise for leaders for quick and easy problem solving. By using Five Whys on your own or with your work group, you'll:

  • focus on root causes of problems rather than on blaming and finger pointing
  • avoid assumptions and logic traps, and drill down through layers of abstraction to root causes
  • keep your eye on the problem rather than on its symptoms
  • quickly move to solving the problem rather than getting bogged down in over-analyzing it

How can you use the Five Whys today to become a better problem-solver, a more deliberate thinker, and a leader -- like Jeff Bezos -- who models a sense of urgency and a get-it-done attitude?

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