The 5 Whys may not always be the best way to arrive at Root Cause

Nov 6, 2014 5:44:01 PM

When people skills are discussed in respect of Root Cause Analysis, the remark is often heard that it should be easy to use and also that it should be quick.  From this perspective, often the choice is to use the “5 Whys” method, since it is ‘easy’ and ‘quick’.  This approach to selecting a problem solving tool clearly demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding in respect of not only root cause analysis, but problem solving in general.

When deciding about root cause analysis and problem solving skills, we need to start with the issues we need solve and not people.  Not all problems are the same, it is common that problems differ vastly and that some are more difficult to solve than others.  Keeping the foregoing in mind, the nature and level of difficulty of a problem must therefore dictate the selection of the problem solving tool, rather than the fact that the tool may fit the desire of being simplistic and easy to use.

Problems to solve, generally fall in to three categories:

  • > Level 1:  The problem experienced is known and has typical technical answers, in such cases problem solving mostly dictates just a choice of the right cause based on prior knowledge.

  • > Level 2:  This problem is non-typical and whilst people have opinions and guess about the cause, a structured process is needed to determine cause.

  • > Level 3:  This atypical problem mostly discourages persons from speculating about cause, and in-depth technical analysis will need to be performed to find cause.

The “5 Whys method” generally fits into Level 1 problem solving.  The question is, however, whether 5 Whys is the best tool available at that level?  In addition, it is true that this tool is useful and where properly applied and has aided in many a problem solving effort.  The following are, however, the weaknesses of the method:

  • > The method in essence only uses divergent thinking, it keeps on diverging information as long as the Why question is repeated.

  • > There is no mechanism to distinguish related but not useful information from information necessary to solve the problem.

  • > The assumption by many that if you ask “Why’ five times, then by default when the 5th answer is generated, that such answer is the root cause.

  • > Poor Problem statement formulation.

  • > No testing mechanism to eliminate irrelevant potential cause.

The KEPNERandFOURIE “Thinking On Your Feet” (TOYF) tool addresses these weaknesses in that

  • > It creates a clear starting point using object and fault.

  • > It focuses only on relevant information in that this question driven method only lists unique relevant information.

  • > It uses a converging method when testing possible causes and illogical potential causes can be eliminated.

It is postulated, that if the KandF TOYF feet method is objectively uses facts, is easy to use and time efficient, leading to speedy shortlisting of potential causes that can be verified.  Kindly let me know if you would like to learn more regarding this tool by emailing the writer

To learn more about Thinking Dimensions Root Cause Analysis, download the ITRCA brochure.

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Adriaan du Plessis

Written by Adriaan du Plessis

Johannesburg, South Africa | Managing Director of the Global IT CSI Practice
Adriaan provides consulting, facilitation and implementation services for root cause analysis, decision making and business improvement as well as people development using proven KEPNERandFOURIE™ tools and techniques. As a world-class facilitator he focuses on the use of a divergent set of improvement and thinking tools to assist businesses to enhance value, specifically in Root Cause Analysis, IT Root Cause Analysis and Decision Making.


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