Root-cause analysis is one of the possible activities during Generate Insights phase of retrospective, and a popular method for doing it is Five Whys technique, originated from Toyota.
While it might be the most basic method for finding root causes it still serves it purpose quite well in many cases, helping to move behind habitual thinking and to identify and to address the root causes of problems instead of fighting with first level problems, that actually are just symptoms of deeper systemic problems.
The idea of the technique is to go deeper from the first level problem to its root cause, by repeating the question “Why?” approximately five times. The answer to the fifth Why should reveal the root cause of the problem. Number 5 is just a reference, in reality it might me between 3 and 10 Whys, still in most cases it will be quite close to 5. The process is not always linear, there are might be several underlying causes for the problem, some of those might point to other causes depicted before, which might result in a quite complex picture, with loops inside. This would raise our awareness about complexity of the problem and remind us how naive our habitual simplistic approaches for addressing complex challenges might be.
I like a popular example of applying Five Why technics which allegedly helped to solve the problem with Jefferson Memorial, in Washington DC, which was eroding too quickly, meaning it was becoming expensive to maintain. There were obvious solutions how to prevent this (like “Address serious structural problems”), but investigating the problem more in depth with Five Why’s technique helped to gain new insights with totally different possible solutions on every step (like “Look for new cleaning methods” or “Use pesticides”), until finding something really simple – “Turns the lights on 1 hour later”.
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