Use the ‘5 Whys’ to Get to the Root of Your Productivity Problems

Use the ‘5 Whys’ to Get to the Root of Your Productivity Problems

Planning your next moves is pretty crucial for being productive, but it’s only helpful if those plans are well informed. To succeed, you need to understand why previous attempts at similar tasks didn’t pan out how you wanted them to. Conducting a personal after-action review is one way to assess your work, but to truly understand what went wrong and prepare for future tries, you need to dig deep. Try the “Five Whys” technique to get to the bottom of things. 

What is the “Five Whys” technique?

You should know, first of all, that this is yet another productivity protocol that springs from Japan’s famed factory system, like the 5S and 3M techniques. Basically, once you identify a problem, you’re going to ask, “Why?” five times, which will ultimately reveal the true root cause of the issue—and what you need to focus on fixing. 

How to use “Five Whys” for problem solving

Some variations of the technique call on you to assemble a team for brainstorming before doing this, but if you’re assessing a personal issue, that part is pretty adaptable. Your “team” can be the people posting on forums about the problem, for instance, or a group chat with your friends. If the issue is a household one, chat with your family. This doesn’t have to be super formal, but if the problem is one related to work and you do have coworkers involved, bring them into the discussion. 

Whether you’re consulting a team or not, the real work begins when you define the problem. State it clearly and, ideally, write it down. Let’s say the problem is you didn’t get the dining room clean in time for dinner, so everyone had to eat at the counter. Simplify that to, “I didn’t get the dining room clean.”

Next, ask, “Why?” Write down the answer, like, “I had to take a phone call from work.” 

Ask, “Why?” Write down the answer and ask again. Then again, again, and again, until you’ve asked five times. So, your paper might look like this: I didn’t get the dining room clean > I had to take a phone call from work > I didn’t finish the reports my boss wanted > I didn’t have the data I needed from the sales department > The sales department was not aware of my deadline. 

When you’re finished digging into the problem, you can see how the answer to the last “Why?” caused a domino effect that led to the original issue. Fixing these more granular problems will ultimately help prevent bigger ones. So, in this case, write down, “I will communicate deadlines and needs with other departments at work early on when working on a project.” The next time you have a project to do, when you’re planning out your to-dos around it, be sure to include, “Communicate with the sales department about the deadline for the data.” 

Bear in mind that root causes aren’t always evident after five rounds of “Why?” For instance, maybe it’s not your job to communicate your deadline to the sales department. Maybe the person who was supposed to do that messed up or the people on that team didn’t check their emails. In that case, overhauling your protocols at work might be the answer. The “Five Whys” aren’t concrete; they’re a way to change your thinking around problems so you can easily identify their root causes and address those. Once you get in the habit of asking why and working backward, you’ll be able to do this quickly and alter your future plans more efficiently. 

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