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End the Blame Game with the 5 Whys

Posted by Jeff Roussel

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Jan 26, 2016 6:35:00 AM

blame_finger_pointing.jpgMost of the organizations we get involved with are quick to embrace the idea and tools of continuous improvement. Employees generally react enthusiastically to the opportunity to improve quality, efficiency, and customer satisfaction.

But once in a while, leadership is met with subtle, usually quiet resistance to change. Employees either grumble about the programs or simply fail to engage. When we dig into what causes this in some organizations, we often come to the same conclusion. Employees equate identifying problems with pointing fingers at people. They are afraid that improvement and the blame game go hand in hand. The 5 Whys technique is a great way to address this impediment to change.

The 5 Whys

5 Whys is a technique used to help get to the root cause (or causes) of problems. It involves starting with a problem and asking, "Why?" until the core issue is revealed. It turns out that this often takes 5 iterations (sometimes fewer, sometimes more).

One of the main advantages of the 5 Whys technique is that it stops people from simply solving problems and forces them to dig deeper until they uncover the reason the problem occurred in the first place. For example:

              “The wrong price rang up when the item was scanned.”


              “The wrong price was entered into the system.”

We can solve this problem fairly easily by correcting the price in the system. But, will that stop future pricing mistakes? Likely not. What if we dig deeper?

              “The wrong price was entered into the system.”


              “An outdated pricing sheet was used.”


              “The point of sale workstation was poorly organized.”

Now we’ve found something of value. We still need to fix the wrong price in the system, of course, but by digging further, we’ve found that a disorganized workspace contributed to the error and could potentially cause future mistakes. Organizing the workspace is a simple improvement that could prevent a lot of hassle.

Notice We Didn’t Say, “Who?”

Improvement initiatives get easily off track when “why” is replaced with “who.” If we focus on who entered the wrong price into the system, we lose track of the process and work environment problems that are often the real reason for errors. Berating Johnny for entering the wrong price or even assigning a different worker to the task isn’t going to eliminate the problem going forward if it is still easy to mistake an old price sheet for the current one.

Not only does the “who” approach fail to prevent future mistakes, it also makes employees feel defensive and less willing to participate in improvement activity that requires close scrutiny of how work is performed.

If you notice that your team does not seem open to other improvement techniques like Gemba walks, PDSA cycles or standard work, try running through the 5 Whys approach with a process or two. Use it as an opportunity to reassure them that improvement activities target process and conditions, not people. An organization that is dedicated to continuous improvement is one that is dedicated to creating the conditions in which people are most likely to excel. That doesn’t involve the blame game at all.

The Savvy's Leader's Guide to Employee Engagement

Topics: Spread Continuous Improvement

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