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You know how little kids have that tendency to ask “Why?” over and over again, and no matter how many times you answer them, they just keep saying “But why?”? It can be very cute and, let’ face it, a bit frustrating for mum and dad, but the thing is, those little kids are on to something. The more you ask “why?” the more likely you are to get to the bottom of something. And when you’re investigating the root cause of an incident, that is invaluable.

What kids do naturally in an effort to find out exactly what’s going on – and notice how they never settle for the first obvious answer – we grown ups need a methodology for. It’s called the 5 Why Method and is a key component of our new Strategic Incident Analysis (SIA) training, which is based on the principles of Incident Cause Analysis Method (ICAM).

A bit of background

Sakichi Toyoda developed the method in the 1930s and it came into popularity in the 70s. Toyoda was one of the founders of Toyota Industries – a company renowned for its “go see” philosophy which meant that decisions were made based on an understanding of what was happening on the shop floor, not in the vacuum of a boardroom. This close observation of systems and engagement with the people who have real, day-to-day experience with the processes in question, is at the root of the 5 Why method and has been a remarkably successful and much copied strategy.

How the 5 why method works

The 5 Why technique seems simple – and to an extent it is – but to yield the most useful results it needs to be applied properly. So no, you can’t get away with responding with an exasperated “because I say so, that’s why!” in the way you might to your five year old. Until there is sufficient evidence to support the root cause you end up revealing, you need to keep asking questions. In fact, then, your 5 whys might very well turn into 10 whys. Conversely, you might find the root cause after three whys. But always be wary of quick answers. The theory is that immediately obvious issues will always have underlying problems – the key is to keep peeling back the layers until the true root cause of an incident is discovered, not just the symptoms.

How to carry out the 5 why method

  • It is essential that you talk to the people involved in the incident. There’s no point trying to gather information and evidence without that interaction
  • Define the incident in a clear statement that doesn’t make reference to any possible causes
  • Ask why and keeping asking why until a verifiable root cause is identified
  • Identify corrective actions

For example:

A new site worker on the site slipped on a wet floor and fell over, injuring their wrist in the fall.

Why? They weren’t wearing non-slip boots

Why? They hadn’t been issued with correct safety gear

Why? They hadn’t had a safety induction

Why? There was no one to conduct the training

Why? Because there is only one person qualified to conduct the safety induction and they were off sick.

Root cause: Insufficient staff available to conduct safety training and inadequate process for ensuring that non-inducted workers are permitted on site.

Corrective strategy: train more workers to be able to give a safety induction and introduce a checklist to be completed before new worker is permitted on site.

The root cause is almost always going to point to a process, not an individual. Be cautious of any answer that blames a person or thing e.g. “The fall happened because Brad wasn’t in the office” or “The fall happened because the floors are wet after yesterday’s rain”. Those things might well be true but they don’t take you anywhere useful. The most effective counter measures are those that change processes, improve systems – the aim of the game is to always address the cause, not the symptoms.

Next time you’re investigating an incident, remember to get in touch with your inner kid and ask “why?” as many times as you need to until you get an answer you are satisfied with.

Keen to know more? Give us a call to discuss our new Strategic Incident Analysis training today.

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