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Why “5” and Why “Why”?

Complex problems demand for complex problem analysis, and simple methods are to be used for one-fold failures. Sounds reasonable. But is it true?

In terms of causality it is probably the other way around: when you use Fish Bone analysis, you get a complex problem and a lot of issues to work on. When you apply the 5Why you will get a problem not deeper than 5 levels of assumed causes. Beyond this reasoning lays the fact that the simple 5Why is for the folks on the shop floor and the sophisticated Ishikawa (fish bone) is for high educated staff.

Both methods have big advantages:

  • Restrict language which otherwise can be ambiguous and boundless in gathering details
  • Visualize in a diagram that shows the cause and effect between events and conditions
  • Easy to generate in a group session lead by a skilled facilitator.

However, beside these pros, both methods have their cons as wel

Why 5Why?

No doubt it is wise to keep it simple in an area where there is little time to ask questions. And asking 5 times why is better than not asking for any cause at all. But why “5” and why “why”? Generally a why-question asks for reasons or justification, goals and motives. That is why so often one can be surprised by the answers you get.

  1. Why is this pump failing?
    1. Because it is maltreated.
  2. Why is the pump maltreated?
    1. Because the management wants to produce as much as possible.
  3. Why?
    1. . . . .

Repeatedly asking “Why?” is annoying. Asking “Why are we doing this?” in the middle of a meeting can be obstructive. There is no guarantee that it leads you to any root cause. The why-question can be powerful in a given context especially when it is a spontaneous “Why?” But in order to get the right information one better use specific questions.

What exactly is wrong with this pump? Ah, it doesn’t start.
What is the direct cause of
 that? Oh, no power.
How come?  . . .

Furthermore, a 5Why diagram is in many cases far too simple because it does not show:

  • Effects and (possible) severity in the field of safety, business integrity and so on
  • The conjuncture of (multiple) causes and circumstances
  • The role of previous preventive measure, which failed. And the causes of that.

And how to move forward if the answer on your last why-question is “Don’t know!”, and you need to know it to take effective action? Applying the Fish Bone perhaps?

Fish Bone Drowned

Thinking about a very complex problem it might be sensible to think about all factors in the system: man, machine, material, method, management and environment (‘map’ for the case of M). In an Ishikawa or Fish Bone diagram, you can put in all your knowledge, of course in general terms to avoid overload of the diagram. In tutorials always simple examples are displayed.

In reality these method produces a huge amount of possible factors, whether or not related to the specific problem. That drowns the Fish Bone. It is hard to see how all possible factors can be causal related and thus explain a specific problem.

The Fish Bone, being a structured brainstorm tool, reveals a lot of information but it is still a challenge to:

  • Understand the relations between (multiple) causes and circumstances
  • Understand why it happened in that location, at that moment in exact that manner?
  • Discover the real direct causes and opportunities to solve them
  • Focus on a sustainable solution, you can’t cover them all. Or can you?
  • Keep time spent low. And it does not help to be not specific and avoid details.

Fish Bone might be a relevant tool to start a Risk Analysis, but be very reluctant to use it for Root Cause Analysis! 

Root Cause Analysis

A root cause analysis (RCA) approach should be like a sharp scalpel: elements and relations are well defined. Facts are specific and validated and distinguished from assumptions and hypotheses. One will understand the relations between (multiple) causes, circumstances and failed preventive measures (broken barriers) at first glance and there is always a focus on effective measures to prevent this problem to occur again. 

Scale Ability

An applicable RCA approach will always start with the easy part of a problem. Just in case the problem appears to be simple (in spite of one’s perception) and the right questions can be asked on the shop floor. But the same approach should be applicable in case the problem has multiple factors, unknown causes, changing participants, a lot of experts and a long lead time with a lot of investigations. It also should be applicable for any technical and human or organizational problem.

Innovative Root Cause Analysis training

In a complex world in which knowledge is fragmented, experts have to cooperate in multidisciplinary teams. To enhance the effectiveness of these teams a thorough method, with the scale ability as mentioned above, is key.

The training “Innovative Root Cause Analysis (iRCA)” will provide both, method and skills to be more successful in business and in your career.

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