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Problem Statements – Five Why’s v. Five How’s

November 6th, 2012

Problem statementUp and down the escalator you go through a store when shopping at the mall until you get to the level where your desired merchandise is listed on the map.  Such is the same for choosing a problem statement.

Usually, the first time you state a problem is just the beginning of finding the goal you really want to pursue.  So then, how to get to the right problem statement?  The first thing I’d recommend is to make sure your initial problem statement is neutral.  In other words, if as an example, you wish to improve field personnel billability in a services business, state the problem as the improving the billing of field personnel’s time.  Get rid of any buzzwords.

Then use the Five Why’s tool.  As you ask the Five Why’s, you naturally become broader in the problem statement. The advantage of broadening the question is that you create more options.  The risk when you do this is that you become as abstract as to pursue a problem for which you are resource constrained.  In other words, you simply can’t command the resources needed to solve that problem.  This is the classic case of “boiling the ocean”.

Now here is a twist you should try.  Go back to the original neutral problem statement and ask several How’s.  This has the opposite effect of the Five Why’s.  Instead of getting broader, it makes the problem statement more specific.  When you put together the statements for the Why’s and How’s you construct a hierarchy of possible problem statements.

Download Project Definition Powerpoint

a short Powerpoint on project selection and definition …

Why construct this hierarchy?  Well it gives you a range of alternatives and focuses you to think about the right choice.  You have many levels of specificity from which to choose.  So what is the right choice?  You want to choose a level that is high enough to leave you options which make a measureable impact on the problem area.  Yet, you need to stay low enough where you control, or have the ability to bring to bear, the resources needed to solve the problem.

Now these are just judgments so we recommend that when you apply those judgments, you stretch yourself. Go one level higher than you feel comfortable.  So I guess the recommendation is to get on the escalator and go up and down until you find a comfortable spot – then go up one!  If you wish to speak about this, I encourage you to reach out to me.

  1. Mike Clayton
    November 6th, 2012 at 16:49 | #1

    Chrysler uses 5 why’s at 3 levels, shop floor, shop floor mgmt, and C-suite for their supply chain followup to incidents, I am told, just as Ford for many years used 8D and then global 8D methods in response to incidents. I heard about the 3-level nested 5 Why’s at a client factory (automotive semis) and first two levels were easy they said. COO level was referred to QA for action, but COO signed off on control changes to prevent further incidents. Sounds somewhat effective to me. More common in my experience was the 8D approach, with QA tracking and followup in operations, time limits, bonus penalty issues, etc.

  2. November 7th, 2012 at 09:27 | #2

    Mike – Thanks for your comments. We actually did some work at Ford years ago when they first adopted Six Sigma. 8D, developed at Ford, was a resident problem solving approach.

    To put the blog article into the context of 8D, think about what I wrote as a way to approach D2 where the problem solving team is supposed to “Define The Problem”. My discussion of using a “How Statement” is a shortened version of 5W2H (Who, What, Where, When, Why, How & How Much).

    But don’t limit using 5 Why’s (with annexed How Statements) to Defining the Problem. You can also use it at D4 where the problem solving team attempts to identify possible causes for the defined problem. The Why’s move into higher, broader issues that provide problem solving options while the How statements drive into lower level processes that help you get to a problem for which you have the resources to succeed in solving it. You are building a vertical hierarchy.

    Then try going back and forth between Why’s and How’s. That sort of probing actually moves you laterally in terms of logic arguments. After moving laterally, you can then drive vertically again. These are all tools to explore possible causes. Another tool to use at this stage of the 8D process might be a fishbone diagram.

    The point is that by using a combination of Why’s and How’s you develop a hierarchy of levels from which to pick the problem statements. One opens options while the other keeps you grounded to something you can tackle. Reach higher than you may be comfortable but not so high as to be ineffective.

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