Problem Solving to Find the Root Cause

If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.

Albert Einstein

As part of my Lean Six Sigma training, I learned to be a really great problem solver.

If you have peaked into the Sigma world at all, you have probably heard about the 5 Whys tool. This tool suggest that you ask the question “Why?” five times to find the root cause of a problem, and then look for a solution that will tackle the root cause. The alternative would be to not fully understand the issue because you did not ask enough questions, and then merely putting a surface-level solution in place rather than actually fixing the problem.

There is a classic example used in Sigma training that will help illustrate why the 5 Whys technique can be so effective. It was taken from Dr. Don Messersmith’s Lincoln Memorial Lighting and Midge Study – see a summary below.

Think about it – if Dr. Messersmith and his team stopped asking “Why?” after the first round of questions, they would have spent a lot of time, money, and manpower trying all different kinds of cleaning solutions until they found the one that was least harmful to the monuments. But the bird droppings would have kept coming!

By continuing to ask “Why?” they were able to understand the root cause of the problem and propose a solution that would greatly reduce the number of bird droppings – turning the lights on 30 minutes later so as not to attract insects and birds at dusk. So simple, so cheap, and so effective!

For an interesting read on this study, and why this lighting solution was not put into place permanently, check out this article by Joel A. Gross of The KaiZone.

So how does the 5 Whys apply to your role as a project manager? Oh, let me count the ways! I find that if I’m not asking questions as a project manager, I’m solving problems. And most of the time, one leads to the other.

Here are some of the ways that getting to the root cause of a problem via the 5 Whys (or any method you prefer) will help you become a more effective project manager.

  • Understanding why a specific issue or risk exists (and then you can properly mitigate it)
  • Determining why someone/a team is behaving in a certain way (and then you can help shape behavior using relevant antecedents and consequences)
  • Assessing how and why stakeholders may react to change (and then you can build a change management plan to address the issues)
  • Listening to sponsors’, stakeholders’, team members’, or clients’ needs and requirements (and then you can offer support and/or build a solution that caters to those needs)

In a nutshell, asking “Why?” can only help you as a project manager, and getting to the root cause will help everyone. A surface-level solution will only last for so long. Sometimes it is necessary for a quick fix, but most of your time, money, and people resources should be spent on a long-term solution that will fix the underlying issue.

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