Monday, March 01, 2021

Mentor Moment: Root Cause Analysis, the Five Whys, and the Question Behind the Question


Transcript below...

Hi! This is Heath, and it is Monday morning. I wanted to share something that I've been thinking about a little bit this morning. I was reading a book this morning. Every day I try to read something for personal or professional development, and this morning I was reading a book about affiliate marketing, of all things. There was a passage in the book that touched on something close to root cause analysis. So I started thinking about the topic of root cause analysis. You might be totally familiar with it, but if you're not, here's some highlights and a very high level look at what root cause analysis is.

Root cause analysis comes to us from something called kaizen, which is a Japanese concept of continuous improvement or change for the better. It was really popular in the ’70s, got picked up by a lot of Six Sigma folks, is still in use by the lean community in various ways, and is still in use at Toyota, where a lot of the the early principles in the ’70s first came into use.

Definitionally, what root cause analysis is—kind of, sort of—is what's really going on or causing something. It’s slightly different than a drivers analysis. The basic idea is that if there's a problem, a challenge, or a situation that you're facing in your work—an error, a failure, a flaw—there is a number, one, perhaps more than one root cause to it. If you're able to address the root cause, you can often make the flaw, the failure, the problem, the challenge go away. Root cause analysis helps us identify what those contributors to the failure, problem, or challenge might be.

There are different methods you can use to do a root cause analysis. There's something that's pretty cool that I'm not going to tell you about today called the fishbone diagram or the Ishikawa diagram, which is worth looking into. It’s basically a way to diagram causes and effects. There's something called the Five Whys, which I'll talk to you about a little bit more in a couple of moments. You can also use flowcharts to map the various contributors or participants in a process, a practice, or a series of processes or practices to help identify who, where, might be contributing to the problem or challenge. You can use the Pareto Principle and Pareto analysis to figure out what the priority of the contributors are. Chances are, if the Pareto Principle remains constant, that 20 percent of root causes contribute to 80 percent of the effects or errors that you're seeing in the end. And lastly, you can also use scatter diagrams.

But the book I was reading this morning had me thinking about the Five Whys, and without talking explicitly about root cause analysis or even the Five Whys as a principle, the author of the book I was reading talked about asking why until you can't anymore. So if there is something that you consider true, ask why. You'll have an answer. Ask why that might be the case. You'll have another answer. Just ask that—why—until you've exhausted asking why. So that got me thinking about the Five Whys, which led me to root cause analysis. 

The Five Whys is really interesting. It actually comes out of another Japanese concept out of kaizen. It's called genji genbutsu. I've also seen it as gemba genbutsu, and they mean slightly different things. Genji genbutsu is the idea of going and seeing—go and see—or going to the source of the problem, whereas gemba genbutsu is a real location, real thing. A similar idea and approach, and the idea of the Five Whys is very similar to this author's paraphrase of it—only you ask why five times. That number can be somewhat fungible and flexible. You can ask it more than five times. You can ask it less than five times until you come to the root cause.

Thinking about that this morning and looking a little bit more into it this morning led me back to a book that I'd read a while ago that I'd like to also offer in the context of this thinking about root cause analysis. The book is QBQ! The Question Behind the Question by a fellow named John Miller. The idea behind the question behind the question is that “why” questions can be somewhat challenging. In one book summary that I read to refresh my memory this morning, Miller actually contends that “why” questions can make us feel helpless or more daunted by a task, a problem, or a challenge that's before us.

Similarly, “who” questions can lead us to assign blame, and “when” questions can also—in that open-ended way that “why” might—can also lead to more challenging analyses. So Miller suggests that we focus on “what” questions and “how” questions rather than “who,” “when,” and “why”—not just looking at “what” or “how” questions but also looking at questions that include us as the primary actor. “How can I… ?” “What should I… ?” “What can I… ?” By having it focus on what or how, having it focus on us as the primary participant or actor—and then focusing on action and on solution, his approach—the question behind the question—might be another productive tool for you to think about.

Anyway, just about six minutes of sharing some random stuff this morning: root cause analysis, the Five Whys, the question behind the question—all inspired by some morning reading I was doing this morning. Have a great day!

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