The 5 Whys — The Simplest Way to Get to the Root of any Problem

Toyota is famous for their production process. They designed a system that eliminated waste, stress and inconsistency to levels that were previously considered implausible. Books have been written on the process. But, what isn't well known is that their paradigm-shifting production process was based on a very simple insight originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda.

Sakichi was the father of the Japanese industrial revolution. He cut his teeth building weaving devices and looms. When trying to perfect an automated loom, he actually conducted a year long experiment that had his looms running against his competitors in a real world environment. As each of his looms failed he focused on how to improve their performance.

The methodology he used was simple. Like any good problem solver, he started by asking "Why." But, he realized that you can't get to the root of the problem with a single question. A single question only identifies the symptom, not the root problem.

Like a child trying to figure out why the sky is blue, he repeated the question a minimum of 5 times in order to get to the root of the problem. This simple insight was the birth of what is known today as "the 5 whys method."

Why did the loom break? Because the gear jammed. Why did the gear jam? Because it ran out of oil. Why did it run out of oil? Because the operator didn't add it. Why does the operator need to add oil? Because oil isn't automatically added. Why isn't oil automatically added? Because there isn't an oil pump.

Sakichi's method of root cause analysis is now taught in MBA programs around the world. But, his genius wasn't related to some magic insight. The "5 Whys" method is applied common sense. It's development was the result of his fierce tenacity in trying to get to the root of his problems. His brilliance was that he institutionalized this tenacity among his process engineers. He "made it stick" by giving it a memorable name ("the 5 whys") and in the process he revolutionized process manufacturing.

So next time you're asking yourself, "what went wrong?", remember Sakichi Toyoda and the 5 whys. It may annoy your co-workers, but at least you'll be closer to the root of the problem.

Written by Adam Harrell on January 6, 2010


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bob says:

the irony...

Adam 600px kd2wvyl
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Adam Harrell