Get RA-Wise with 5 Whys

5 Whys is perhaps the best known technique for finding the root cause of problems. Developed in Japan and pioneered in Toyota, it belongs with quality management and Kaizen as one of the factors behind the high-precision, low-error Japanese manufacturing revolution. Part of its genius is that the method itself is so simple. Start with a problem. Ask why you have the problem. Whatever the answer, ask why again – why are things like that, why is that answer true, why is the business like that? Keep repeating the question every time you get an answer, until you have forced yourself to get to the very bottom, the essential root cause that underlies the problem and where it becomes impossible to ask why again. To get to the bottom may take more than 5 whys; it just happens that 5 is a reasonable guess at how many it will take. So to give a simple illustration of how 5 Whys would apply to RA, imagine a bill is in error. Why? Because a CDR is missing. Why? Because the switch was not working as expected. Why? It got overloaded. Why? Because actual call volumes were above the design spec. Why? You get the idea by now – just keep asking why until there is nothing left to learn.

Simple, huh? Well, getting the answers might be a lot of hard work. But the point is right – RA should keep asking why until it finds the real root causes of the leakages. And if not RA, then who should ask why? The answer to that is plain: if it is not RA’s job to uncover and address these root causes, then it is nobody’s job to uncover and address these root causes. RA is unusual in having a job spec that gives it the freedom to research, find, and drive the response to root causes which lead to leakage, wherever and whatever those root causes are.

But does every RA function habitually ask the 5 Whys? No. Why? Because they can get results more quickly without asking the 5 Whys. Why? Because drilling to the root cause may be time-consuming and RA can get credit for just treating the symptoms. Why? Because finding the root cause often involves more than analysing data that RA already has (or wants) and RA can choose to measure the benefits they add by just treating symptoms. Why? Because addressing symptoms does deliver nominal benefits that can keep their bosses happy and nobody is pushing RA to measure how well they dealt with root causes. Why? Because executive management is comfortable with just addressing symptoms and RA is comfortable with satisfying those more limited expectations of executive management. Why? Because nobody in RA or the executive team is motivated to change the business more fundamentally.

Have I made my point? I think so; RA can and should deal with fundamentals and lead the discovery of root causes in order to drive fundamental change. Why? Because I believe that if RA does this, then businesses will be better… and that is the root cause of this blog.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is a recognized expert on communications risk and assurance. He was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and others.   Eric was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He was a founding member of Qatar's National Committee for Internet Safety and the first leader of the TM Forum's Enterprise Risk Management team. Eric currently sits on the committee of the Risk & Assurance Group, and is an editorial advisor to Black Swan. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.   Commsrisk is edited by Eric. Look here for more about Eric's history as editor.
  • Eric,

    I had never heard of the “5 Whys”, but I poked around the web and found it to be a highly interesting and practical technique. Thanks for this. It reminds me of another thought experiment I’ve dreamed about: mapping the telecom business from first principles.

    The inspiration for the idea comes in part from “Economics in One Lesson” by Henry Hazlitt., one of the simplest and most powerful books I’ve ever read about man as a socio-economic animal. In one great chapter, Hazlitt describes how a shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe must carefully manage his time to survive on a deserted island. Google Books has the exact passage I’m talking about here.

    For Crusoe, the key question is not “Why”, but “What” — as in “What shall I do right now to merely survive?” Shall I collect rain water, gather berries, or build a tree hut for shelter? Each one of those tasks is vital. Crusoe doesn’t need to ask “Why” because the answer is self-evident. In fact, the urgency of his situation forces him to innovate, to come up with clever techniques to buy more time and thus secure a more certain future.

    How different Crusoe’s dilemma is from that of a large telecom organization! Forget the tree hut; telecoms have erected massive palaces with countless rooms and labyrinth-like policies, job titles, and complex systems, the wisdom of which are rarely questioned until the trunk is shaken by a recession or stiff competitive challenge.

    So as an alternative to Why questions that drill down from the leaves of the tree, why not start at the roots and branch outward with questions like: Why are we in the telecom business in the first place? What are we building networks for? Who will buy our network services? And Which tasks are absolutely essential to maintaining those networks?

    You can bet that the savvy entrepreneurs of a telecom startup — the Crusoes of our industry and time – are well acquainted with those first questions and principles. And challenge remains the same: add more people, resources, and limbs in a structurally sound way. If the first principles are sufficiently ingrained, then the tree bears good fruit and doesn’t grow to such an ungainly size that the next typhoon knocks it down.

    Yes, by all means – and especially today — telecoms, bankers, governments, and citizens should all be asking those simple but penetrating “W” questions.

  • Hi Eric,

    I believe you have missing another part of ‘5 Whys’ because I have using this powerful techniques in my past RA years and currently using it for my internal audit function.

    Once you reach the bottom of fifth ‘Why’, to prevent the problem from occuring is you have to reverse back by proposing control at the fifth ‘Why’, at fourth ‘Why’ , at third ‘Why’ and so on. Then the whole objective to be proactive will be practical.

    Thanks