Using the “5 Whys” Technique with Your Board of Directors

In past blogs from Directorpoint, we’ve discussed using “Ishikawa” or “fishbone” diagrams to prioritize a board’s approach to problem-solving. One of the reasons fishbone diagrams are so successful is that they are structured to identify the root of a problem. The “5 Whys” technique strives to achieve the same goal using simpler means. Let’s discuss.

What is the 5 Whys Technique?

The 5 Whys technique is what’s known as an “interrogative” technique. This means it uses a series of probing questions to achieve some end goal. The end goal, in this case, is not to tell you exactly how to solve a given problem. It’s designed to tell you what the problem truly is. The technique was developed by Toyota founder Sakichi Toyoda in the 1930’s, but the method didn’t gain national recognition for another 40 years.

Board members are using the 5 Whys technique to identify the root cause of a problem.

In its simplest form, the 5 Whys technique involves repeating the question “Why?” as you begin to narrow in on the root of a problem. In many ways, it requires a board to uphold a toddler-esque sense of curiosity towards problem-solving. Of course, the technique is a little more involved than that, but we’ll get into the details during our step-by-step walkthrough.

The number “five” in the 5 Whys technique is more or less arbitrary. There’s no set number of times a board needs to ask why a given effect is observed before they find the root. However, asking “why” too many times can indicate some weaknesses in the question and answer process. These weaknesses may include not being specific enough in identifying a given cause or effect or not drawing the most direct relationship between cause and effect possible. We’ll dive deeper into some of the best practices in our walkthrough.

Why Use the 5 Whys Technique?

The simplest answer to the question of why your board of directors should use the 5 Whys technique is that it answers fairly simple questions that get infinitely harder to solve in a group. Say, for example, a sales team is underperforming. Ten different people might identify ten different causes behind the effect of the team’s underperformance. The 5 Whys technique provides a large, opinionated group of decision-makers with a simple and objective means for getting to the root cause of a problem. If your board of directors can identify and address the root cause of a given problem, it will likely resolve the problem itself. If it doesn’t, there’s a good chance your board has misidentified the root. The added benefit focusing on the root problem is that, by addressing the root, a board is more likely to minimize or eliminate several non-root problems along the way.

How to Perform the 5 Whys Technique

Performing the 5 Whys technique isn’t complicated, but there are a few steps your board can take to ensure it is performed as effectively as possible. As with fishbone diagrams, it often helps to use a whiteboard or flip pad to visualize the branching path diverging from the problem (the “effect”) and its root cause. The 5 Whys technique is also made more effective when managers and executives are involved. Board members may not always be qualified to correctly identify the root cause of a given problem as they are often distanced from the day-to-day operations through which the root cause may identify itself. Because of this, boards should consider performing this technique in cooperation with an executive committee or panel of management personnel.

To perform the 5 Whys technique:

  1. Define the problem, or “effect”.
  2. Ask “why”, or what cause is most directly linked to this effect?
  3. Treat the “cause” identified in the previous step as its own effect, again asking “why”.
  4. Repeat the second and third steps until one of the following conditions is met:
    1. The board is unable to identify a “why” for a given cause.
    2. A cause is identified for which there is a clear and unambiguous means of resolution.

You have successfully performed the 5 Whys technique.

This should sound simple. In theory, it is. In practice, however, you’ll find that identifying the most direct cause for a given effect to be challenging, especially in a group setting.

A board member uses the 5 Whys technique to prioritize her problem-solving.

There are a number of best practice your board can apply when performing the 5 Whys technique. These include:

  • Use a whiteboard or flip pad to visualize the relationship between causes and effects.
  • Basing the identification of causes and effects on objective statements and measurements.
  • Moderate the exercise to ensure that no individual, team, or department is assigned blame for a given effect.
  • Ensure that causes and effects are stated as concisely and unambiguously as possible, maintaining a smooth, logical flow from the initial effect to the root cause.
  • Test the relationship between causes and effects by reversing the statements (stating the cause before the effect) and separating them using the words “and therefore”. If the statements don’t read fluidly together, there may be weaknesses in the identification of these variables.
  • The importance of maintaining an open and honest environment when performing this technique cannot be understated. You can read more about mitigating bias and preserving candor in board meetings in the Directorpoint blog.

The 5 Whys can be an effective way for larger boards to objectively identify the root cause of a problem and prioritize their solutions accordingly. To learn more useful decision-making and problem-solving techniques, visit the Directorpoint blog. If you’re interested in learning how Directorpoint helps organizations make better decisions across the board, schedule a demo of our powerful, easy-to-use board management software today! You can also contact us online or call (888) 492-7020 to speak to a board software specialist.

Learn more:

Posted in Blog and tagged , , , , , , .