The Five Whys Analysis

Posted on January 17, 2012 | in Lean Tools, Maintenance, Personal | by

Root-cause analysis is a fancy and concise way to say “figure out the real reason something happened.” When bad or unexpected events occur, we want to know what caused it so that we can fix the mistake and prevent it from occurring again. When good things happen, we want to determine what went right so we can try to replicate it.

When you are ill and visit the doctor, you REALLY don’t want the doctor to make prescriptions for the wrong causes of the illness, right? You want to know the actual cause of the problem so that the proper treatment can be provided and your good health can be restored as quickly as possible.

The simplest tool to use for root-cause analysis is the “five whys” method. It’s very easy to use – determine the problem (or success!) that has occurred, then start working backwards to determine direct causes by continually asking “why.”

After about five iterations of asking why (more or less whys, depending on the situation) you should have determined the root cause of the problem (or success!) so you can act on it as necessary.

Let’s try it! Here’s a problem example.

  • Problem: I have a slight mouse infestation in my house. (This is true. One mouse I’ve seen = infestation.)
  • Why is there a mouse infestation in my house? My house is not 100% sealed off from the elements.
  • Why is the house not 100% sealed off? Because it’s an older house with deterioration and lots of nooks and crannies that have opened up and not fixed.
  • Why have these nooks and crannies not been fixed? Because lots of areas in the house hadn’t been inspected for seals.
  • Why hasn’t the house been inspected for seals? ┬áBecause it wasn’t a priority when we moved in.
  • Why wasn’t it a priority upon move-in? ┬áBecause it was warm when we moved in and a mouse infestation was not likely, but now it’s an issue and has become a priority.

So the problem of mouse infestation was started off with not making house seals a priority when we first moved in.

As I would imagine, you could branch these individual “whys” off in multiple ways, as there can generally be multiple direct or indirect causes that go into why an activity occurred. Such as:

  • Problem: I have a slight mouse infestation in my house.
  • Why is there a mouse infestation in my house? Because it’s warmer and more hospitable than being out in the cold Ohio winter weather.
  • Why is it more hospitable in my house? Because there is warmth and food for the mice.
  • Why is there food available for the mice? Because food ends up on the floor in the form of spills or crumbs.
  • Why is there food on the floor? Because I don’t clean the floor nearly as much as I should.
  • Why don’t you clean the floor as often? Because I don’t like doing cleaning chores so I put them off.

So I am helping to let the problem of the mouse infestation grow by putting off cleaning chores.

With these two examples, would it be safe to rationalize that by doing an inspection (and series of repairs) of bad seals around the house AND by not putting off floor-cleaning chores I might be able to prevent the mouse problem from getting bigger (or eliminating it)?

(Of course, I’d have to make sure the mice are GONE before sealing, or I’d have to capture the remaining mice that are trapped inside.)

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