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Act Like An Annoying Little Kid!
Employing the “5-Why” technique to troubleshoot issues and discover valuable lessons on your project.
Do you remember when you were a child and drove your parents batty with a non-stop barage of questions about anything and everything? Or perhaps you’re a parent now, and your son or daughter is driving you batty: “Daddy, why is the sky blue?” “Because light from the Sun gets scattered into different colors when it reaches Earth, and we see the blue part.” “But why does the light get scattered into different colors?” “Because the atmosphere acts like a big prism.” “But why does it act like a prism?” “Because, well… uh… go ask your mother!”
Like it or not, children are expert at something called the “5-Why” method (or, more accurately: the “5-gazillion method”). As a Project manager, you should also be familiar with this technique, as it can help with everything from troubleshooting project technical issues to creating a lessons-learned document on your project.
The What and Why of the 5-Why Method:
The 5-Why method is a problem-solving technique used to determine the root cause of a problem. It is often used in the project management world to identify the underlying causes of project failures and to tease out lessons learned. The approach involves asking a series of progressively deeper "Why" questions to drill down to the root cause of an issue. Each answer leads to the next "Why" question, until the root cause is identified.
The 5-Why approach is an effective method for uncovering the root cause of an issue because it focuses you on asking the right questions to zero in on the underlying cause of the problem. The technique helps to eliminate the guesswork involved in identifying the root cause, by focusing on facts and data.
The How of the 5-Why Method:
The 5-Why method involves three steps:
The Prompt. To get to a solution to something, or to tease out a key project lesson, you must start with a prompt that begins the series of “Why” questions and answers. The prompt can be a statement itself, but more often it is a question you ask of someone or of a group. If you’re troubleshooting a problem, for instance, you might start by asking, “What has gone wrong?” Or even, “What is the problem?” If you’re trying to generate a lesson-learned after a project has completed, you might ask, “What went well on the project?” Or, “What went poorly.” You can also work through a series of prompts that align with the KISS system: “What tool/technique/method should Keep/Improve/Start/Stop doing on our next project?” The point is, you start a discussion by prompting an answer from your team.
The Why Questions & Answers. Next, after you receive a response to The Prompt, you should reframe it into another question, preferably one beginning with “Why” as the first word. Then, when the ‘promptee’ answers the question, you then reframe and ask “Why” again. The second "Why" question builds on the answer to the first question, and so on, until the root cause is identified. The process is repeated until the root cause of the problem has been identified or until a root cause is discovered to the issue. Often, one has to ask and reframe the answers multiple times, hence the name “5-Why Methods.” Five is not necessarily the actual number of “Why” questions you’ll have to ask, but it’s typical of many issues you’re to trying to get the root base of.
The Takeaway. After repeating the Why questions several times, the answers will typically begin to converge on a hard, actionable takeaway. It will take judgement to decide when you’ve reached that point, but in most cases it will be obvious.
An Example of the 5-Why Method:
Here's a simple example of how the 5-Why approach can be used to uncover an actionable lesson in a project:
Issue: The project budget was exceeded by 20%.
1st Why: Why was the project budget exceeded?
Answer: The project team had to purchase additional materials to complete the work.
2nd Why: Why did the team have to purchase additional materials?
Answer: The original materials specified in the project plan were found to be inadequate for the job.
3rd Why: Why were the original materials specified in the project plan inadequate for the job?
Answer: The specifications were not thoroughly researched and tested before being included in the project plan.
4th Why: Why were the specifications not thoroughly researched and tested before being included in the project plan?
Answer: The project team did not allocate enough time for research and testing during the planning phase.
5th Why: Why did the project team not allocate enough time for research and testing during the planning phase?
Answer: The project team was pressured to meet a tight deadline for submitting the project plan, and prioritized speed over thoroughness.
Lesson Learned: To avoid exceeding budgets in future projects, it is important to allocate sufficient time for research and testing during the planning phase. This will ensure that the materials and specifications included in the project plan are thoroughly researched and tested, reducing the risk of having to purchase additional materials later on. Additionally, the project team should consider the importance of thorough planning and should not prioritize speed over thoroughness, as this can lead to costly mistakes.
Cautions & Caveats About the 5-Why Method:
It’s important to note that the 5-Why approach should be based on facts and data, rather than assumptions. The answers to the "Why" questions should be based on evidence and should not be speculation or mere opinion. This approach helps to eliminate bias and ensures that the root cause is accurately identified.
Once the root cause has been identified, it is also essential to document the lessons learned from the problem. This could include documenting the steps taken to solve the problem, the causes of the problem, and the solutions implemented. This documentation can be used to inform future projects and to prevent similar issues from occurring.
The Bottom Line:
The 5-Why approach is a valuable tool for project managers. It helps to identify the root cause of issues that occur during a project and to tease out useful and actionable lessons learned. The approach is based on facts and data, and the information gathered can be used to inform future projects and to prevent similar concerns from occurring. By using the 5-Why approach, project managers can ensure that they clearly understand the root cause of a problem and can act to prevent similar problems from occurring in the future.
Now, if we could figure a way to limit the number of children’s ‘Why’ questions on a specific topic to just five… ;-)