The Five Whys

I recently finished reading “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries. If you haven’t read it already, I highly recommend it – the book is full of great insights on how to make new products, whether you’re a startup or a big, established company. I’m not on board with all of his recommendations (e.g. split testing every little change) but he gets so much right (small batches, experiment-driven product development, stay stubborn on vision but flexible on execution, etc.) that I can’t help but look past the occasional lapse in the details.

In this post, I’m going to discuss a simple technique that Eric mentions near the end of the book: the technique of the Five Whys. The goal of the technique is to help us look past the immediate cause of a problem to find more systemic causes. These systemic causes often indicate bigger problems with the culture and structure of the organization.

The Five Whys technique is very simple in concept. When a problem occurs, we ask “Why” not just once, to identify the immediate cause, but repeatedly until we identify deeper root causes. As a heuristic, asking “Why” around five times should start to uncover systemic causes – flaws in the human culture and processes in which the problem arose. Most of the time, these flaws stay hidden because decision makers stop the inquiry as soon as a cause is identified that appears fixable. But since these causes are frequently symptoms of some larger problem, a true fix is never found.

Eric gives the following example of a Five Whys analysis:

  1. A new release disabled a feature for customers.
  2. Why? Because a particular server failed.
  3. Why did the server fail? Because an obscure subsystem was used in the wrong way.
  4. Why was it used in the wrong way? The engineer who used it didn’t know how to use it properly.
  5. Why didn’t he know? Because he was never trained.
  6. Why wasn’t he trained? Because his manager doesn’t believe in training new engineers because he and his team are “too busy.”

Ries, Eric (2011-09-13). The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses (pp. 231-232). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

The “five” in Five Whys is, of course, somewhat arbitrary. The number of Whys is less important than arriving at systemic causes. The true test is when you stop identifying technical flaws in the design or implementation and/or purported personal flaws of whomever made the mistake. Instead, you start asking hard questions about the organization, the culture, and the processes in which the problem arose. For example, even in the analysis described above, I would encourage Eric to go deeper. Why does the manager believe himself too busy to train new engineers? Is it because the organization’s culture doesn’t value training? Is it because the manager is being forced to take on more work than his team has capacity to achieve? Does he lack the necessary tools to prioritize tasks with long-term value (training) over those with short-term value (churning out new features)?

Eric recognizes the need to go beyond personal flaws, because he adds an additional test to deflect our natural tendency to blame individuals for problems caused by situations.

  1. Be tolerant of all mistakes the first time.
  2. Never allow the same mistake to be made twice.

Ries, Eric (2011-09-13). The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses (p. 236). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

All of us are bad at seeing the effects of systems on ourselves and our coworkers. We tend to blame other people for problems that were actually caused by poorly designed systems. The Five Whys combined with a willingness to forgive all mistakes at first, but never to let them happen again, helps us compensate for this.

Just because a Five Whys analysis has turned up systemic flaws doesn’t necessarily mean those flaws should be immediately corrected. No system is perfect, and fixing the system is almost always slow and expensive compared to fixing smaller, more localized problems. If we insisted on systemic fixes to every problem, nothing would ever get done. However, if we are aware of the weaknesses in our systems that underlie the problems we’re encountering, then we can start to see when the system is causing the same problems over and over again. For some systemic problems, repeatedly applying band-aids quickly becomes slower and more expensive than fixing the deeper root cause.

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