Root Cause Analysis – 5 Whys

Why Anyone who has kids or occasionally interacts with five-year olds knows about their uncanny ability to exhaust all your justifications simply by asking “Why”?

Interestingly enough, this characteristic that we often find exasperating in an infant is quite a powerful tool for identifying root causes of problems. As a “tool” it’s quite simple to understand and to use.

 

  1. Identify the problem under analysis;
  2. Ask “why” and obtain an answer;
  3. Keep asking “why” to each answer until you find the root cause (when the only answer you can come up with is “Just because!”, that’s probably the root cause);

The beauty and applicability of this technique lies in it’s utter simplicity. Granted it’s just useful for root cause analysis, but understanding root causes is often more than halfway home in solving a problem.

This technique is called the “Five Whys” not because you should only ask the question five times, but simply because more often than not five iterations are sufficient to reach a root cause. Here’s a quite quick example of this technique in action:

Problem: My project is behind schedule

Analysis:

  1. Why?
    Because we couldn’t deploy the software on time
  2. Why?
    Because we had integration errors in three components
  3. Why?
    Because they weren’t integration tested
  4. Why?
    Because we don’t have the proper testing environment
  5. Why?
    Because the email ordering the machines wasn’t sent on time

This technique is said to have been invented by Sakichi Toyoda, Japanese inventor, industrialist and founder of Toyota Industries. However, I believe kids throughout the ages might have gotten it even before that.

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Too Many Hats

hats Ever felt like you were wearing too many hats? Doing too many different things at the same time?

If you do then you know it’s not that easy to step into someone else’s shoes nor try to look at any given topic from different angles.

The Six Thinking Hats® (6TH) method is an analysis technique that helps us to look at a given topic from different perspectives. The usefulness of this approach is that you get a more complete and thorough view on the subject and you often spot issues and discover new approaches that you’d usually miss.

6TH is very effective when multiple participants are involved. In these situations there’s a tendency for people to argue their own point of view. 6TH helps by shifting the focus from argumentation to collaboration, as all participants wear the same hat at any given moment, effectively looking at the issue under discussion from the same point of view.

Reading the book I followed the SQ3R technique and listed the questions I would like to have answered by the time I finished the book.

Here are some of the questions I wrote down after I surveyed the book’s contents:

  • What are the six thinking hats?
  • What does each hat represent?
  • How do I use this technique?
    • Individually
    • In a collaborative environment?
  • How does this relate to parallel thinking?
  • How does it relate to lateral thinking?

Getting to Know the Six Thinking Hats®

The 6TH method is a parallel thinking method and as such, it exposes all sides of the topic under analysis. Under western thinking, if two people disagree on an issue they discuss it trying to have their point of view prevail.

Using parallel thinking, if two people disagree on an issue, their points of view are both exposed in parallel. By looking at the multiple angles of the issue, any inconsistencies can be resolved or fused/merged together into the final solution to the problem.

Edward de Bono proposes using multi-colored hats as a way to represent different points of view. By wearing a hat of a given color, you are prompted to condition your thinking to that particular point of view or frame of mind.

So, what are the 6TH?

  • White Hat – represents neutrality and objectivity. The white hat is concerned with objective facts and figures;
  • Red Hat – represents emotion. The white hat represents the emotional view;
  • Black Hat – represents caution. The black hat identifies the weaknesses in an idea;
  • Yellow Hat – represents positive thinking. The yellow hat identifies positive points in an idea;
  • Green Hat – represents creativity. The green hat represents the generation of new ideas;
  • Blue Hat – represents control. The blue hat is responsible for organizing the thinking process and for the use of the other hats.

Edward de Bono lays out some ground rules for the use of each hat. However, the golden rule is that only one hat can be under analysis at any given time – this is what changes the focus from discussion to cooperation.

Since I usually learn more by asking questions and trying to find the answers to them than by using any other strategy, I have compiled a small list of questions that I find suitable for each hat:

Hat Questions
White Hat
  • What are the facts and figures?
  • What information do we have?
  • What information do we need?
  • What information is missing?
  • What questions do we need to ask?
  • Red Hat
  • What’s your gut reaction?
  • How do you feel about this?
  • Black Hat
  • Why can’t we do this?
  • What are our obstacles?
  • What’s the downside?
  • Yellow Hat
  • How can we do this?
  • What are our leverages?
  • What’s the upside?
  • Green Hat
  • What are additional opportunities?
  • What are additional angles?
  • Blue Hat
  • How should we think about this?
  • How shall we plan our thinking?
  • What’s the best way to use our hats?
  •  

    Using the Six Thinking Hats®

    Another question I had was related to how the 6TH method could (or should) be used in practice. Here’s how I have tried to apply this method personally:

    • Blue starts;
      • State the issue / approach / theme under discussion and the goal for the meeting;
    • Decide on the approach based on the session’s goals;
    • Analyze the topic from the perspective of each hat
      • Use the questions above as a template / guideline;
      • Only one hat can be under analysis at any given moment in time;
    • Continuously validate your strategy (Blue Hat evaluates if the defined approach is still working)
      • Is the team making progress?
      • Should we keep to the approach or does it make sense to switch to a different hat?
      • Should we return to an already used hat to further explore that angle?

    The Six Thinking Hats® is an interesting multi-dimensional approach to problem analysis and decomposition. I find it particularly useful for creative problem solving and as a way to make brainstorming sessions more productive.

    The Leaders We Need…

    Most books on leadership make it sound a lot like a gift or a personal trait one is borne with. I don’t particularly believe in this theory. I believe that Leadership comes from a collection of skills that one can learn to master. I admit some people might be more inclined to learn these skills. To some, they might even come naturally, but most of us can learn and use proficiently, if not all, at least some of these skills.

    Leaders today face numerous challenges. One of the most fundamental challenges is how to inspire people. As a leader and an authority figure, it is easy to fall into the trap of using that authority to command and control others. This negative behavior can be avoided if the leader has the skills that enable him to influence and motivate others in achieving common (and clear) goals. Below are some of the core skills that leaders need to develop:

    • Communication skills – Speak and writing in a clear and persuasive tone is fundamental for inspiring others;
    • Interpersonal skills – Learn how to relate to others and listen to what they are really saying. People seldom come out and say exactly what they mean. Especially when communicating up;
    • Conflict-resolution skills – The ability to handle tension is paramount for a leader. A calm, collected, and rational leader, especially when there are high stakes and high emotions, inspires others;
    • Negotiation skills – Negotiation is about handling differences (different viewpoints, different goals) and looking for common ground and defining platforms for common understanding;
    • Motivational skills – Aligning all parties on a common goal is a fundamental trait for a leader;

    The skills mentioned before are essentially soft skills. What so many managers fail to understand is that Management and Leadership are not the same thing. Being a manager doesn’t turn anyone into a leader. On the other hand people can be leaders and not be in any position of authority.

    The table below shows the different set of skills required both in management and leadership positions. While the items on the left are key operational skills for managers, those who want to lead must also develop the the skills listed on the right.

    While Managers… Leaders…
    • Plan
    • Budget
    • Envision
    • Organize
    • Manage Resources
    • Motivate
    • Inspire
    • Control
    • Solve problems
    • Negotiate
    • Resolve Conflicts

    I’ve been inspired by similar comparisons, but the table above is my own (influenced and distilled) view on the major differences that I see in the behavior of managers and leaders.

    Today, we are facing turbulent times, such as our generation has never seen. People with managerial skills are necessary, but those with leadership skills are fundamental.

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