“The “5 WHYs” Technique for Problem-Solving” originally posted on MsInTheBiz.com.
Today, a male colleague sent me photo of his kid to ‘motivate’ me into productivity using his kiddos’ cuteness like a meme. A sweet chubby baby girl with fabulous sassy energy came up on my phone with the caption: “*Shirley* can’t wait to watch the screener with me, she’s a harsh critic though: only 2 stars for peanut butter. I’m hoping you can top peanut butter!” Yes, it works, those kids are super cute and now I’m thinking about delivering our work a little sooner. But would this male colleague send these to my husband if Ryan were the primary contact in our business dealings? Has this male colleague sent innocent and cute kiddo photos to ANY of his male peers in business dealings? Would he soften the blow of his expectations to receive my work with any parenthood nod to his fellow male parent counterparts ever?
This isn’t the first time this has happened. This isn’t the first male (or female) business colleague to do this to me. This isn’t going to stop, either.
I am outspoken as an Indie Work-At-Home-Parent Filmmaker, I am outspoken for parent-friendly practices. I WANT to see pictures of your kids AND talk about your kids. I’m very MOM in that way, but I don’t really share that energy in any of my business dealings. I usually welcome it as it comes from the other side of the table. But I can tell the difference between someone who cares about their kids and it spills out everywhere and the nuance of a male colleague taking my professional presence in their day as a slippery segue into talking about kids and derailing my work day from an innocent place of basic association… but it isn’t innocent. Sometimes these small (micro aggressions) add up to big issues in my work. Over the last 5 years, I have lost a great deal of traction from being a parent-friendly advocate and, frankly, an obvious maternal energy type person.
I recently wrote a scathing 10K word ‘open letter’ to a company with which I had a huge issue. One of the main problems was a communication barrier. My ‘handler’ working as an unofficial sales agent had negotiated on my team’s behalf in bad faith. He also kept putting a spin on my work as a filmmaker by constantly including ‘female’ filmmaker alongside my work as if that was our genre or hook or brand even though my writing and producing partner was a man and our director was a man (not a problem necessarily, but it was purposely misleading the way he did it). The biggest problem I had with the situation was that this male colleague would abandon his work obligations mid phone call with me to talk about the difficulties in which he was struggling in his parenting role. Constantly. It happened so often that I had to cut every phone call short once he started talking about his kids, I knew nothing would get done once he had turned his attention from business to family. This sexist interaction and distraction cost me thousands of dollars. I would venture to say this was a $250,000 problem I couldn’t fix until it was too late. Once I had brought up the problem in a not-so-polite way, he suddenly quit his job. But the damage to my work was already done.
Had I done this with a male or female or person colleague, I would be under severe scrutiny for being unable to conduct business without my personal parenting life spilling into every single phone call. I would never consider this behavior appropriate unless I was severely struggling and this was a call for help. I don’t think that was the case here. Two different male colleagues have done this exact thing and made me feel slighted in the last year and I feel the need to say something about it. And maybe help others see a way out of it once it starts.
Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t want to STOP the parent-friendly discussions, I want to encourage them – after the business at hand is done. But… why is a male colleague constantly steering important work discussion away from task? Is it because he doesn’t have other parents that he can talk to? Is it because he doesn’t know how to bring up his kids with male colleagues who are also parents? Is it because we are having a conflict in negotiations and bringing up my parenthood identity can knock me back down a peg? Is it because he is a mediocre employee and wants to steer the conversation away from work around me for fear of me seeing him as a fraud (my money is on this one)? Or is it because my very parental presence and maternal spirit inspires him to only see me one way and the subject of his parenting struggles or cute children naturally comes up?
What could I do next time this comes up? What could you do?
I learned about the 5 WHYs for solving big problems from Valarie A Chavis (Founder and Director of Training, Culturally Fluent Families) in a group that discusses transracial adoptive families, cultural fluency (term coined by Annette), healthy identity formation, and anti-racist practices. I have since learned that it was developed by Sakichi Toyoda and was used within the Toyota Motor Corporation during the evolution of its manufacturing methodologies. What a wide range of application! I have been convicted to use the 5 WHYs often in every area of my life, that includes the world of inclusion and privilege, areas where I face a big learning curve. Wikipedia best explains it here:
“5 Whys is an iterative interrogative technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem. The primary goal of the technique is to determine the root cause of a defect or problem by repeating the question “Why?”. Each answer forms the basis of the next question. The “5” in the name derives from an anecdotal observation on the number of iterations needed to resolve the problem.
Not all problems have a single root cause. If one wishes to uncover multiple root causes, the method must be repeated asking a different sequence of questions each time.
The method provides no hard and fast rules about what lines of questions to explore, or how long to continue the search for additional root causes. Thus, even when the method is closely followed, the outcome still depends upon the knowledge and persistence of the people involved.”
The vehicle will not start. (the problem)
- Why? – The battery is dead.
- Why? – The alternator is not functioning.
- Why? – The alternator belt has broken.
- Why? – The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced.
- Why? – The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (Fifth why, a root cause)
The questioning for this example could be taken further to a sixth, seventh, or higher level, but five iterations of asking why is generally sufficient to get to a root cause. The key is to encourage the trouble-shooter to avoid assumptions and logic traps and instead trace the chain of causality in direct increments from the effect through any layers of abstraction to a root cause that still has some connection to the original problem. Note that, in this example, the fifth “why” suggests a broken process or an alterable behavior, which is indicative of reaching the root-cause level.
The last answer points to a process. This is one of the most important aspects in the 5 Why approach – the real root cause should point toward a process that is not working well or does not exist. Untrained facilitators will often observe that answers seem to point towards classical answers such as not enough time, not enough investments, or not enough manpower. These answers may be true, but they are out of our control. Therefore, instead of asking the question why?, ask why did the process fail?
A key phrase to keep in mind in any 5 Why exercise is “people do not fail, processes do”.
Once I began having a work dispute with my male colleague, I should have asked him if he would answer 5 WHYs concerning our professional interactions. I cannot just ask WHY here, in this case, I need to ask the whole question dependent upon the answer to get to the root of the problem. This is how I imagine the conversation would go:
Me: “I am experiencing an issue with our business relationship, would you participate in this problem solving tactic of using 5 WHY questions to find the root cause of the issues I am experiencing? It requires that you answer truthfully and introspectively to me repeating a ‘why’ question concerning our work.
Colleague: “Um, ok. What’s wrong?”
1. Me: “Why are you bringing up your kids in the middle of this work conversation?”
Colleague: “I thought you’d be interested…”
2. Me: “Why right now?”
Colleague: “um… Talking to you brings up feelings about my kids”
3. Me: “Why?”
Colleague: “You’re a fellow parent and I imagine have similar struggles”
4. Me: “Why are you bringing up your kids in the middle of this work conversation?”
Colleague: “I didn’t realize …or consider that I was interrupting our work”
5. Me: “Why?”
Colleague: “Because you’re a Mom, I maybe don’t see you as anything else. I probably don’t see you as a business associate and, therefore, don’t prioritize our work together.”
I would guess that some male colleagues can’t un-see that I express as an overtly maternal female. They may unconsciously see that as a problem or our work as less important than the work they do with people with whom they share more equal respect. I don’t think that being a female filmmaker or a parent filmmaker is a problem. I PRAISE colleagues that cannot un-see me as female. However, does my gender expression fracture our working relationship because of learned ideas concerning women in business? Am I being placated and misunderstood and written off because of my female expression? Am I equipped to withstand trials in my work if my priorities create tension in my work/life balance? Is my artistic and storytelling point of view any less universal?
Consider writing down the 5 WHYs as to the reasons you may think poorly of a working relationship with a female colleague: “Why don’t I have a good working relationship with ____(insert name of female colleague here)?” I encourage people from all gender identities and expressions to do this: the patriarchy spares no one from its propaganda and misogyny runs deep.
Do you think that you’ll come to an honest conclusion by the end of the 5 questions? Does that list show gender expression as a barrier to true equality and respect? Do I describe this female or procreating colleague as a stereotype or as an individual? And, while we’re thinking introspectively, do I give the benefit of the doubt to my male business associates up until problems like this arise?
Do you see your trans, black, foreign born, overtly religious, queer, person holding a cane, pregnant, or gender non-conforming colleagues as a shell that you are unable to see inside while conducting business (and in life)? Do you have a few people in mind of which you are convicted at this moment? Do you ‘want’ to bring up their differences in every conversation? Do you steer difficult business topics to other human rights and equality topics because you can’t un-see their involvement because of their identity (seeing these topics as common ground)? Or do you think there is a chance that you only want to talk about these subjects because it is too hard to consider your colleagues as universally relatable to others or trustworthy to work at your level because of their identities?
Consider what issues need to be aired before business can be conducted equitably. Consider that someone’s multi-identity or intersectional identity is truly a benefit to informing them of their universally relatable experience, but also uniquely equipping them to be the best colleague for you on a project, especially if you lack some of the lenses through which they can see the world. Consider negotiating in good faith and giving the benefit of the doubt to people that differ from your experience, all people. We all see the world through a different lens in different situations, but two or more perspectives reveals more of the picture than just the one you hold. And when you want to bring up something ancillary to the business conversation, be sure that the business you have conducted is DONE for the day and offer a polite segue:
“Do you have a few more minutes? I was just thinking about ______________ and wanted to talk longer but wanted to make sure I didn’t cut our work talk short….”
Hopefully this will help you implement the 5 WHYs to find your most honest motivations and increase your awareness that other people are always being bombarded with conversations about their top 3 identifying factors, discuss in earnest after business is done … and after a quick google search, too.
- adb.org. Asian Development Bank. February 2009. Retrieved 26 March 2012.
- Spears, Stephen. The High Velocity Edge.
- Serrat, Olivier (2017), Serrat, Olivier (ed.), “The Five Whys Technique”, Knowledge Solutions: Tools, Methods, and Approaches to Drive Organizational Performance, Springer Singapore, pp. 307–310, doi:10.1007/978-981-10-0983-9_32, ISBN 9789811009839, retrieved 2019-02-03
- Ivan Fantin (2014). Applied Problem Solving. Method, Applications, Root Causes, Countermeasures, Poka-Yoke and A3. How to make things happen to solve problems. Milan, Italy: Createspace, an Amazon company. ISBN 978-1499122282