Are You Getting the Most Out of Your 5 Why Analysis?
By Laura McElroy

Using the 5 why analysis method helps a manager do an in-depth root cause analysis of weaknesses in an organization that needs to be rectified. This is the aim of the Six Sigma continuous improvement program, which is a powerful and effective problem-solving model.

When investigating areas for development within a company, the aim is to introduce interventions that will address the root cause of the problem. In medical speak, you are looking for the cause of the illness to treat, instead of alleviating the symptoms. In Six Sigma speak, you’re looking for long-term solutions, not short-term patches.

What is a 5 why analysis?

The essential principle of a 5 why analysis is that in asking why more than once, you delve deeper into a problem. This allows you to recognize the root cause of the trouble, instead of the superficial symptom. As the name implies, you’ll need to ask why five times if you want to address the cause.

Here’s what a lot of managers miss when they do a 5 why analysis in their company:

Going it alone

No 5 why analysis is going to deliver an accurate result if you decide to do it in isolation from the rest of your team. There are going to be questions that you lack the expertise to answer. Without the right answers, you’ll never reach the root cause of your predicament.

Allowing other team members to offer their perspectives will give you valuable insight into issues pertaining to the problem, says Peter Peterka on his 6sigma.us website, a renowned data scientist who is a known proponent of Six Sigma certification to improve organizational effectiveness.

When choosing a team, you should be looking for people with unique characteristics. The first will naturally be their expertise and the ability to provide clarity on areas you might be unfamiliar with.

The second is people in whom you can place your trust to take the task seriously and offer valid opinions. The final trait is their determination to participate and contribute their best to the project.

Remote problem-solving

Sitting in an office or boardroom, you’re unlikely to understand the nature of the problem you are meant to be analyzing. Getting into the field and interviewing people at the coalface will give you much more insight and assist you in making the right decisions.

You also need real-time data to validate your suspicions about the cause of the problem before you jump headfirst into coming up with solutions. Six Sigma is about having data-driven conversations, and the 5 why analysis is no exception.

Drawing the line

Some problems have you asking why more than five times. You shouldn’t stop at five if you feel you still haven’t reached the root cause of your problem. While five is an average, some problems go beyond this figure.

However, you should be cautious about over-analyzing. The longer it takes to complete the analysis, the greater the problem will become. Be thorough, but avoid nit-picking to the extent that you waste time.

Solutions and their implementation

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to interventions. Quite often, the solutions determined by a previous 5 why analysis will be applicable in your current situation. You can replicate these remedies to solve the problem, although they might need a few tweaks to tailor-make them to the circumstances.

Where you feel the problem needs a revolutionary solution, take drastic action. However, you’ll need to monitor it closely to make sure it is having the desired effect. Use real-time, verifiable data to make sure this is happening, or you’ll have to return to the drawing board.

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