Using Root Cause Analysis for Problem-Solving

When we don’t get to the root cause of a problem, any problem, we are then just providing a band-aide fix to the solution. We are treating symptoms as opposed to the actual problem. This is like providing pain meds to the cancer patient without treating the root cause of cancer. The thing is, putting a band aide over a gunshot wound might help for a while but it doesn’t solve the problem (the bullet). Without root cause analysis, we run the risk of dealing with the same problem over and over and over again. And nobody has time for that. In the following paragraphs, you’ll find an introduction to the 5 Whys, how it is used in the workplace, and how you can use it at home for root cause analysis and elimination of all your problems!

An Intro to the 5 Whys for Root Cause Analysis

The 5 Whys is a Lean Process Methodology originally created in the 1930s by the founder of Toyota. It became more popular in the 1970s and is still widely used in the business world. But I want to show you how to use it for virtually any problem you might be trying to solve. Using the 5 Whys will take you down a single track to solve a simple or moderately complex problem. This is unlike brainstorming which seeks to come up with as many potential solutions as possible. Just think of the approach as one tool in your arsenal of mental tools for problem-solving. Here’s how it works.

  1. Define the problem as clearly as possible.
  2. Ask the first why and look for facts as opposed to opinions if at all possible. You can brainstorm several possibilities for this step.
  3. Keep asking why four more times.
  4. Ask why again. We are now at the 3rd why. And it should become more difficult to answer each question as you progress.
  5. Ask why two more times.
  6. Repeat for each option provided in step 2.

Personal Experience with this Tool

I was very fortunate to have started my career in a manufacturing environment that valued the training and development of its employees. The skills I learned regarding lean process methodologies and six sigma have helped me to solve problems in every area of my life. While lean tools were developed to increase production time and eliminate waste in the workplace, combining these tools with human behavior is extremely effective. My children were young at the time and we were building a new home so there was no shortage of problems that needed to be solved. Consequently, I found this to be an invaluable tool not only in my home but also later in my career as I began coaching leaders regarding their employee performance problems.

An Example in the Home

Problems happen in the home all the time. When someone is upset, the attention focuses on stopping the upset as soon as possible instead of getting to the root cause of the problem. We don’t consider the root cause of the upset, we just want them to be happy. The dog doesn’t come when called so we chase after it and get it home instead of getting to the root cause of why the dog doesn’t obey. We don’t have enough money so we look for a second job or side hustle instead of looking at the root cause of the problem (maybe our costs are too high or spending is out of control). You get the idea. Let me show you how to apply this root cause analysis technique so you can permanently eliminate the problems you are having in the home.

Let’s start with the simple example of Johnny not completing his chores after school. We can all relate to this. It’s been going on for a while and all the yelling and frustration you show is not changing the results. Let’s try the 5 Whys.

  1. Define the problem: Johnny isn’t doing his chores as requested.
  2. Ask the first why. Why isn’t Johnny completing his chores as requested? Some potential answers include: Johnny is playing video games or Johnny is involved in after-school sports or there are no repercussions for Johnny not completing his chores. You get the idea. You’ll want to take every potential answer to that question and use the 5 whys for each response. For this example, we’re going to stick with the playing video games option.
  3. Keep asking why four more times. Let’s just take one of the aforementioned ideas and ask our second why. Why is Johnny playing video games? Maybe the answer is because he can.
  4. Ask why again. We are now at the 3rd why. And it should become more difficult to answer each question as you progress. So, now, we’re asking, “Why can he play video games when his chores aren’t complete?”

Keep asking why until you have asked it five times. In this case, you might discover the root cause of the problem is consequences and rewards. Maybe the consequences are not enough to counter the reward of the dopamine hit he gets playing that game. Alternatively, Johnny could be stressed out after school and uses video games to unwind before his parents get home.

Here’s the thing. If you are solving the wrong problem, you won’t get the desired results. Having a clear problem statement is key to your success.

Life Problems Where Root Cause Analysis Can Be Very Helpful

You can use this approach to determine the root cause of any simple or moderately complex problem in your personal or professional life. If the problem has occurred more than once, it’s time to do some root cause analysis. Some ways you could use the 5 Whys in your personal life might include:

  1. Problem: Your significant other is not happy with you.
  2. Problem: You aren’t accomplishing your personal goals.
  3. Problem: Your tomatoes are not producing.
  4. Problem: Your children are fighting.
  5. Problem: You don’t feel fulfilled.
  6. Problem: Your boss is driving me crazy.
  7. Problem: You need to save more money

This is a very effective tool to use and it really causes you to think beyond the obvious. I know it sounds simple but try it out and let me know what you think.

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