Log Jams and the Five Whys in the Workplace

One of the concepts used in a class I edit is called “The Five Whys.” This is where you’ve got a problem in the workplace and ask why it’s happening. However, as the concept title indicates, there’s more to it than just asking, “Why?”

Many challenges have a deeper source than merely the immediate problem. Case in point: Despite being in my condo for 4-5 days, I was still eating out a lot.

Why was this happening?

I still hadn’t bought any groceries.

Why was that?

Even if I bought food, I couldn’t sit down at my dining room table because it was piled up with boxes.

Why was that happening?

I had the new refrigerator in the dining room, keeping me from getting to the boxes.

Why was that happening?

I couldn’t remove the new fridge until the old fridge was taken out.

Why couldn’t the old fridge be removed?

The water valve on the wall needed to be replaced because it wouldn’t turn and was loose in the wall. Once a plumber was called, the old fridge could be removed, new fridge could be installed, I could get to the table to clear it off (and, now that I had a working fridge, I could keep food cool), and life could proceed as normal.

While I could have stopped at any point along my trail of “whys” to address the original problem, if I asked “why” and there was another problem behind that–a task, not a person–I needed to keep digging until I could get to a root cause that would allow the other problems to resolve themselves. As we say in the class, there’s nothing special about the number 5. I could have arrived at my root cause in three steps, or six. The point being, if you’ve got a problem that needs fixing, sometimes asking “why?” (while it drives some managers nuts) might lead to better problem solving.

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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