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Use ‘Five Whys’ to problem-solve

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in Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills

More than 60 years ago, managers at Toyota, the Japanese car company, devised an ingeniously simple technique to fix problems in its manufacturing process. Supervisors would meet with work teams and apply an exercise that became known as the “Five Whys.”

Whenever it faced a challenge, the group would discuss it in a systematic manner. The team leader would facilitate by asking “why” five times to uncover the core problem.

The same approach can help you lead teams to identify solutions. Begin by gathering the group and stating the problem. Example: We’ve received customer complaints about our shipments.

Why? Because orders arrived late and some customers received the wrong items. Why? Because the fulfillment process involves spotty quality control. Why? Because we hired an outside firm to handle customer shipments. Why? Because we found that maintaining our in-house shipping facility was cost-prohibitive. Why? Because employee morale plummeted and turnover soared after they accused management of ignoring their suggestions.

By digging to unearth the underlying causes of a problem, your team members double as a detective force. The questions help you focus their thinking on critical cause-effect relationships.

When conducting this exercise, limit your role. Don’t pretend to know the solution from the outset. Ask “why” without editorializing or introducing tangential issues. By keeping the spotlight on your team—and forcing them to address each question thoroughly—you guide everyone to analyze hidden factors that might otherwise get overlooked.

After you lead a brainstorming session or propose an idea to employees, give everyone a week to digest the issue. Tell them, “Please mull over what we discussed. One week from now, e-mail me with your thoughts. Ideally, I’d like each of you to commit fully to follow through. But if you have concerns or suggestions, let me know.” This holds everyone accountable for either supporting the idea or stating clear objections.

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