Recently I attended my 40th college reunion. I saw lots of old friends and I enjoyed lots of small talk with people whose names I could recall but not their faces. I had a revealing and rewarding discussion with one of my classmates who had made a big name and a small fortune for himself in the business world. When he asked what I was up to, I kept my response deliberately vague. I replied “Consulting.”
He pressed me. “What type?”
I said “Problem Solving…Root Cause Analysis, that sort of thing.”
“Oh you mean the 5 Whys…yeah I did that training years ago,”he retorted.
I replied, “Well, I am glad you remembered one of the techniques. I just hope you remembered the context in which it is most useful.” He seemed genuinely baffled and we exchanged other pleasantries and business cards.
To my surprise, he called me a couple of weeks later, admitting to conducting a Google search and visiting my website.
He confessed he liked the 5 Whys because he was the one asking the “whys”…and it kept him in charge. He also admitted to having little luck with the technique and asked me to explain the “context” I had referred to.
We agreed on the importance of asking the right questions and I explained to him that the 5 Whys is a useful divergent thinking technique but if it is used too soon in the (root cause) analysis process, it could hopelessly open up the possibilities to the point of confusion.
The 5 Whys technique needed to be employed only after the problem/issue/object (whatever his company calls it) had been specifically identified and only after the fault/deviation has been clearly identified. He was aware
of many incidents where time (and his money …as he liked to say) were wasted trying to solve the wrong problem. The context I had referred to was the importance of starting at the right point in a root cause analysis and using drill down techniques to get beyond time being wasted on solving effects rather than the root cause. Our discussion continued over an extended lunch at his invitation.
So my college reunion turned out to be more than just a weekend of small talk…an old acquaintance is now a new friend…and client.