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The Simple Way to Solve Problems


It is very interesting that one of the most powerful techniques for creating adaptive organizations has been kept such a secret! About twenty years ago I was immersed deep into Six Sigma and Lean for some interesting workplace process improvement projects and eventual certification. There I discovered a very useful but simple tool that could be utilized in workshops or meetings with ease and would become part of my leadership self-development as a reflective tool to enhance thinking when considering any type of problem or challenge. So why don't more people know about this simple secret and use it more?


How often as a manager has an employee or group of employees raised a problem and someone offers up an instant solution and the problem is solved? How often did this same problem show up again later or in other ways after implementing the instant solution? Too often the rush to solve a problem quickly in our over-scheduled work lives leaves little time to spend on getting to the "root" of a problem. As a result, the root or real cause of the problem remains hidden, only to emerge again later, taking up more time and adding new frustrations. Here is a simple example. A machine stops functioning. You ask, why did the machine stop? Turns out there was an overload and the fuse blew. Should you replace the fuse and move on to the next problem? Think carefully. You could quickly move on but let's see what happens by asking a few more questions.


Why was there an overload? The bearing was not sufficiently lubricated. Why was it not sufficiently lubricated? Lubrication pump was not pumping sufficiently. Why was it not pumping sufficiently? The shaft of the pump was worn and rattling. Why was the shaft worn out? There was no strainer attached and the metal scrap got in. Now you have the root of the problem. A new strainer could be attached and prevent this from problem from happening again rather than just replacing the fuse and stopping there. Think about how following a similar process of asking "5 whys" could help you.

Generally known as the 5 Whys, it's not a new technique for going deeper to learn the root cause of problems but in The Lean Startup, Eric Ries highlights some insights regarding its underutilization in most organizations. "At the root of every seemingly technical problem is a human problem" says Taiichi Ohno, famous father of the Toyota Production System. In general, you will find that by gaining the insights with the 5 Whys, what at first appears to be a technical issue more often than not reveals a human error. The 5 Whys is difficult to do even though it may sound easy. It takes effort to dig deeper into a problem and many problems may simply seem to have easy answers. Also it can be difficult in a team with low trust where asking 'why' may quickly shift into finger-pointing and blaming.


There are 3 easy steps to get started using the 5 Whys:

  1. Write a clear description of the problem. This will help organize your thinking and ensure everyone in your team is on the same page. You need to agree on what the problem is. Sounds easy? Try it.

  2. Ask why the problem happens and write the answer.

  3. If asking "why" doesn't identify the root problem, ask it again until the team agrees the root cause has been identified.

In essence, if your organization is not using this powerful tool, it may be a strong sign that your workplace culture does not embody enough trust or few are familiar with this powerful tool. If trust is low, consider revisiting The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni for ideas and activities to start building the essential trust for your team.


Time for you and your Executive Leadership Team to build an expanded toolbox with systems thinking to help guide your organization to improved success? Start by registering for our upcoming webinar Growth Systems to learn a simple, yet powerful tool to get you started.


As an Agile Growth Coach & Certified Business Coach, I utilize my professional expertise every day to ensure clients I work with can successfully ask the right questions to find the best solutions for their organization. The 7 Attributes of Agile Growth® provides a proven, practicable and profitable path for companies, non-profits, and local governments who want to transform business through people.


Jerome Dickey, MA, ACC, CPHR, Q.Med

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