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From Toyota to Analytics: The Evolution of the 5 Whys Framework

Updated: Apr 4

If you don’t ask the right questions, you don’t get the right answers. A question asked the right way often point to its own answer. Asking questions is the ABC of diagnosis. -Edward Hodnett

Probing is a valuable skill you shouldn't pass on. Asking questions is the foundation of critical thinking, but asking relevant questions is vital to reaching your objective - the root cause.


Firstly, thanks to all of you who reached out with feedback and wanted to learn more about the 5 Whys framework. Having referred to it in my articles on the 4 Blocker Framework article and most recently on the LEARN Framework and the interest in 5 Whys, I want to use this edition to help you all get familiar with the pros and cons of this framework.


Here’s what we’ll learn today.

  • What is the 5 Whys and its Origin

  • How to Use It for Finding a Root Cause

  • When Not to Use It


5 Whys

The 5 Whys technique was developed by Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Industries, as part of the Toyota Production System. It aimed to identify the root causes of manufacturing problems. Today, it has evolved into a versatile problem-solving tool applicable to various fields, including analytics (how could I not refer to data). It's quite popular too, and I don't anticipate it going down in popularity simply because there's always an appetite for frameworks on problem-solving.


The purpose of the 5 Whys is to identify the root cause of a problem or issue. It is a structured approach designed to help you systematically dig deeper into a problem by asking "why" multiple times, usually five (sometimes much more), to uncover the underlying factors contributing to the problem.


The goal is to move beyond surface-level symptoms and find the fundamental cause that, when addressed, can prevent the problem from recurring.


For my peers in Analytics, a common question we are required to answer most frequently is ‘Why did it happen?’. While we jump at exploratory analysis to find an answer, in my personal experience, data barely helps us find the root cause.

The data helps us answer what happened? and where did it happen? That’s mainly it!


How to Use the 5 Whys

I want to start with an example. Imagine you work for a subscription-based streaming service, and you notice a spike in customer churn. Using the 5 Whys, you can attempt to uncover the root cause.

  1. Why are customers leaving? Because they are not finding the content they like.

  2. Why aren't they finding content they like? Because our recommendation algorithm isn't effective.

  3. Why is the recommendation algorithm ineffective? Because it doesn't consider individual user preferences.

  4. Why doesn't it consider individual preferences? Because we lack sufficient user data.

  5. Why do we lack user data? Because we don't have a robust data collection strategy.


In this example, the 5 Whys reveals that improving data collection is the key to reducing customer churn.


However, it's important to note that the effectiveness of the 5 Whys can depend on having the right context and understanding of the problem. Without context or expertise, it will be challenging to identify the root cause accurately. That's why the 5 Whys is often used as a collaborative tool, involving individuals with different perspectives and expertise to ensure a streamlined investigation.


Unknowingly, we also just created a use case for investing in data infrastructure. Simply because having the right data would help us understand customer behavior and ONE of the benefits of this investment is having actionable intelligence to impact business growth (reduce churn).


The effectiveness of the 5 Whys can depend on having the right context and understanding of the problem.


Challenges and Considerations Using '5 Whys in Analytics'

When Not to Use the 5 Whys - In a silo!

Your probing largely depends on your knowledge of context, culture, acumen, and expertise. It's naive to assume that 3 team members using 5 Whys in a silo would arrive at the same root cause. 5 Whys is most effective when used in collaboration. When there's a shortage of time, or you are dealing with a complex issue tree, 5 Whys shouldn't be your go-to.


Imagine you're the CEO of a SaaS startup, and your product has been receiving a lot of negative customer feedback due to frequent crashes. Sales are dropping, and you're facing a serious revenue decline. Your first instinct might be to apply the 5 Whys to find the root cause, but here's why it might not be the best approach. Let’s test it.

  1. Why are customers experiencing software crashes? Because there are bugs in the code.

  2. Why are there bugs in the code? Because the development team missed some issues during testing.

  3. Why did the development team miss these issues during testing? Because the testing process was rushed to meet a tight product launch deadline.

  4. Why was the testing process rushed? Because the marketing team had already set a product release date to align with a major industry event.

  5. Why did the marketing team set a release date without considering development timelines? Because they were under pressure to announce the product and generate buzz in the market.

At this point, you might conclude that the root cause of the software crashes is poor communication between the marketing and development teams, which led to a rushed testing process. However, this oversimplifies the issue.


In reality, the problem might be much deeper, involving factors like:

  • Inadequate quality assurance processes within the development team.

  • A lack of proper project management to coordinate timelines.

  • Insufficient resources allocated to testing and debugging.

  • Shortcomings in the code review and validation process.

  • A culture that prioritizes quick product launches over quality assurance.

Given the complexity and interdependence of these issues, it becomes apparent that software crashes are the result of a multifaceted problem.


Using the 5 Whys alone may not uncover all the contributing factors and might lead to a narrow solution


Wrap-up

While finding the root cause might sound like an accomplishment, it's only half the job done. Addressing the root cause and taking measures to eliminate or minimize the second occurrence is what is going to make you a superstar! A friendly reminder to complement this with my LEARN framework for completing the cycle.


In the world of problem-solving, understanding the 5 Whys framework is just the beginning. Armed with your newfound knowledge of the 5 Whys, step into the world of analytics and beyond, and become a superstar problem solver!


 

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your feedback.


If you stumbled upon this, or it was forwarded or shared with you, please consider subscribing to my FREE newsletter, Framework Garage, and join a world brimming with mind-expanding yet simple frameworks, stimulating ideas, and real-life applications.




When there is a recurring problem, there should be a framework!

Anirudh Kuthiala is an independent analytics strategy consultant and founder of Framework Garage Consulting




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