How to solve any problem

Mark Graban is understandably disgruntled over the results of a recently released LEI survey of obstacles to lean manufacturing and responded by creating his own survey based on the “5 Whys“.

5 Whys is a useful tool in Root Cause Analysis, originally developed and used by Toyota. I realize that the eyes of at least half of you have glazed over but root cause analysis is just a fancy noun phrase describing a method you can use to solve problems, any problem. Wiki uses this example:

  • My car will not start. (the problem)
  • Why? The battery is dead. (first why)
  • Why? The alternator is not functioning. (second why)
  • Why? The alternator has broken beyond repair. (third why)
  • Why? The alternator is well beyond its useful service life and has never been replaced. (fourth why)
  • Why? I have not been maintaining my car according to the recommended service schedule. (fifth why, root cause)

Although the method has its own problems, you can use this to solve roadblocks and problems in your personal and professional life. The biggest problems I’ve seen in using the method are:

  • Finger pointing, a focus on blame
  • Limiting questions to symptoms
  • Not knowing that you don’t know what you don’t know

Another criticism commonly leveled is that you can have several people asking/answering the 5 whys for the same problem and come up with completely different answers. I think that is a strength and an opening for discussion, a way to learn what you don’t know that you don’t know. Regardless, I still think it’s a useful tool to tackle problems. Do it honestly and you may find answers to questions that you either really don’t want to know or already knew but wanted to avoid or deny. I don’t know of any better self improvement tool. Mark’s 5 Whys survey is contextualized to the failure of lean obstacles but you can use it for anything. Start here.

I’m off to take the survey to see why I stubbornly insist on writing and publishing material like this that -judging from the dearth of comments- nobody reads or cares about.

How to solve any problem pt. 2
Problems in problem prevention
On becoming a lean manufacturer
The perils of D.I.Y.

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  1. Heather says:

    We care, this is great information.

    I don’t comment all the time because I feel that I can’t add anything intelligent to the discussion. Until I learn more, I lurk.

    I do appreciate this work you do. In fact I just linked my partner to this while he’s at work. I think this could be a great tool for him at his job (project manager at an engineering company), not just those of us in manufacturing.

  2. Diane says:

    Not true! The ability to solve problems is a valuable skill worthy of any CEO’s salary. You are a DIY kind of person so when equipment fails you generally know the root cause as you’ve intimately maintained it. My recent experience:

    Fridge decided to stop freezing and cooling.
    Why? Most likely compressor failure
    After moving contents to garage freezer, called Sears. First available appt. a week away.
    Called local service, repaired same day.

    Unit is 5 years old, with a weak compressor for it’s size due to change in environmental laws regarding freon components. Of course, this weak compressor managed to last well past the one year warranty!!

    The best test of problem solving came from contracting my own house. I had some remodeling experience but building from scratch, bringing all the sub contractors together at the right time was surely an education. Problem solving by the minute!

  3. Cymru Llewes says:

    I read it but I’m not sure what sort of comment to make on it. It’s more a case of letting it digest and seeing where it can apply.

  4. j. says:

    True. Comments are only one metric for evaluating the audience’s interest in a blog post. I’m only commenting on this post because I just happened to be reading a thread on another message board in which users were debating whether comment-whoring signified that a blogger was somehow insecure. You have *no* reason to be insecure.

    (I think the entirety of your posts gets fed to aggregators via your RSS feed, which means that it is unnecessary for feed users to click through to read the entire post unless they wish to comment. What if you only put a summary in your RSS feed, compelling those who wanted to read the entire post to click through? Then, you could measure the clickthroughs to gauge interest in the subject.

    Um, I’m not quite certain whether the last sentence is *easy* to implement, but it certainly must be possible.)

  5. Sherry says:

    I mostly read this blog at work. I try to read and digest it every day. By the time I get home, I’m fried and don’t have the energy to post. But I try to NOT post when I’m at work. (Am breaking the rule now, but only to assuage your fear that few people are reading.) Yes, we are reading!

  6. KatyRenee says:

    This is helpful. I’m not sure how much I can apply in my work today–it is difficult to introduce and demand implementation of a new technique, when I’m new and not wanting to rock the boat too much.

  7. Kathleen says:

    have several people asking/answering the 5 whys for the same problem and come up with completely different answers. I think that is a strength and an opening for discussion, a way to learn what you don’t know that you don’t know.

    It would appear I don’t know what I don’t know. Okay, so, my *assumption* that the problem was that people didn’t like certain posts was wrong. I don’t know what my first question should be. Is it:
    1. How to get people to give me more feedback?
    or should it be:
    2. Why do I need feedback?
    a. Is it neurotic approval seeking?
    b. Do I need guidance for topic development?

    A & B are not mutually exclusive of course.

  8. j. says:

    1. I can’t tell whether people are interested in certain subjects. Why?
    2. Because I’m not getting feedback. Why?
    3. Because the readers are unwilling or unable to give me feedback at this time. Why?
    4a. Because the topic is one that requires further consideration by the reader outside the above-the-fold time typically allocated to a blog post, or because the reader simply hasn’t got time. Why?
    4b. Because the reader’s assessment of the value of their feedback suggests that they shouldn’t bother. Why?
    5a. Uh, I ran out of questions, but wound up with: perhaps revisit the topic in a month or so to canvass the readers to see if they’ve made use of it, the way you repost titles on the first anniversary… but much sooner?
    5b. And sometimes a “me too” comment really isn’t all that useful, however affirmative it might be for the blogger. Hmm.


    1. I can’t tell whether people are interested in certain subjects. Why?
    2. Because I’m gauging interest by comments, and I’m not getting enough of them. Why?
    3. Because not everybody expresses their interest by comments. Why?
    4. Because there are other tools available, like Digg and, and other passive indicators of interest, like linking, which is searchable by tools like Technorati and Google, and plain ol’ HTTP referrals.

    So there’s two more different versions…

  9. Lisa NYC says:

    here’s my 5 whys Kathleen…

    Why do I read FI?
    1. Because I don’t know what I don’t know.
    2. Because every single day I learn something new.
    3. Because I get a kick out of Kathleen’s humor.
    4. Because I bought the book and have a general idea what is being discussed.
    5. Because I’d be completely lost as a new DE without it.

    With friendship,

  10. Gini says:

    I’m guilty of getting a great deal out of your posts and not responding. Good point for the 5 Whys. It was helpful to reinforce that you like responses–sometimes it’s easy to think that they might just waste your time. Odd of me to think that since I like feedback. Thanks for the great, thought provoking blog.

  11. Irene says:

    I would agree with the above. I learn a tremendous amount from your writings, and am slowly but surely working my way through the archives and doing the tutorials. (For example, your comments about the ways armholes should be shaped have changed my world, and I am guilty of telling everyone, quite literally, about how cool this is. Oh and about lean manufacturing, and. . . I won’t give you the whole list *wink*)

    However most of the time I feel that I know so little, that I have nothing to contribute. I do appreciate that on this blog, the comments are often almost as informative and interesting as the post, so I feel mildly too intimidated to post when I’m just learning. . .

    In conclusion, I appreciate you!

  12. anne says:

    Why don’t people comment? Because we’re all sitting in front of our computers, smiling and nodding, thinking “Katherine is So Cool!”. Which is, you must admit, not something you can reasonably post without looking like an idiot.

    If you really want to know, use a poll:
    – this was great!
    – this was dull
    – this was a complete waste of time (leave your email so everyone can flame you ;-)
    – I’d like to post something, but I’m too shy

    And yes, I know I owe you an email, but my middle name should be Procrastinate :-)

  13. ashley says:

    This is really interesting to me for 2 main reasons:
    1) Is a blog the best tool for the job? or, another way: Why do people write blogs and how to readers respond to them?
    2) Why don’t I think that my comments are ‘worthy’ or ‘appropriate’ for posting?

    I’m fascinated by #1 — how & why people use blogs (both writers and audiences). [My software career has always revolved around user interaction and I’m always interested in how & why design creates a ‘good’ user interaction.]
    I view blogs mostly as the writer communicating outward; they’re not very interactive. So perhaps you need different or additional tools/stuff that creates/encourages/forces more interaction. Others have pointed towards this: use polls, ask questions, etc. IOW, I think you’re longing for more discussion but the tool you’re using (a blog) is not conducive to it.
    There does seem to need to be filled here — something in between a blog and forums. Perhaps if the comments were somehow made more… I don’t know… elevated? So they appeared to be as ‘important’ as the main entry…? (I’m talking visually, here, not about content.) Would that make people interact more? hmm…

    #2: Why don’t I comment more on FI?
    Because I don’t feel like my comments are worthy. Why?
    Because I’m a home hobby sewist and not working in the DE field or retail or anything like that. I don’t want to take up valuable space or resources that someone else needs. (Which is not very rational, but there it is.)
    Also I need more time to digest and think about all of the fascinating things that you cover, Kathleen. (Note that I’m just now responding to this entry — a number of days later.) My neurons just don’t fire as fast or as often as yours do, Kathleen. :-)
    Often I read blogs in fits and spurts. I may go a week or so without reading any, then catch up in one big swoop. Often I feel like I’m too far behind and don’t want to comment on a topic that’s already passed by.

    Pretty much anyone that writes a blog is struggling with the same question: how do I attract readers and keep them around? How do I get them more interested and invested?

    I obviously could go on and on about this. But I’ll spare you all and stop here. ;-)

    I do want to be sure to say that I am out here, reading as fast and as often as I can, working hard to keep up and absorb all of the fabulous info you share, Kathleen. Thank you for all of it.

  14. Kathleen says:

    Hey girl! haven’t seen you in awhile. Welcome back! I know you don’t feel you have something to contribute but it’s so nice to see familiar faces.

    I just wonder…your comments about blogs. On one hand, blogs are better than what we used to have (static web pages) but I know you’re right. I don’t intend to minimize your criticism with my observation.

    I’m starting a new blog only about patterns and sewing. A blog of blogs, a community. It’ll be by subscription only. Everyone who signs up will have their own blog. I hadn’t planned to announce it just yet, it’s not ready to go but since it’s not free, I imagine it’ll be much smaller. If everyone is blogging there, what better way to interact with all the other members. Is this a crazy idea?

  15. Sandra B says:

    I love blogs for much the same reason I love self-published technical books.The information is usually direct from the source. I also love the personal touch. Blogs feel crafted rather than designed and built. I don’t comment as much as I would like because a: I feel very self conscious, b: there is so much to interest me that I don’t have time. c: some topics challenge me so much that by the time I have any useful comment, the moment has passed. d: some topics don’t currently have much relevance for me, because of where my business is at. However, if you are starting a pattern blog, I will have even less time for commenting, while simultaneously hanging around more :-)

  16. Katrin says:

    I like the comment setup you use – having the first few paragraphs on the main page and continuing the entry, plus comments, “below the fold”. Not only does it make people more likely to continue reading through the comments; it also allows you to fit more entries on the front page at once. That’s a bonus for those of us who may read less frequently (I’m more than a week late to this conversation) but still want to see all the topics you’ve covered lately.

    My reason for not commenting more is the same as Ashley’s: I’m also a hobbyist with no plans to become a DE. Much as I find your content interesting and informative – I learn something useful every time I read it – I feel that your audience is someone other than me, and I’m just eavesdropping.

    I’m curious about this new blog you’re starting. I’m making a big move (geographically) soon and thinking about taking my career in a more sewing-related direction. I can’t wait to hear more about this community and see if it’s something I could benefit from joining.

  17. Mark Graban says:

    Thanks for the link Kathleen and for spreading the 5 Whys goodness!!

    It’s certainly a method we can apply to our own lives, if we’re willing to look into true root causes (which often involve looking in the mirror!!)

  18. jinjer markley says:

    It would be a really fun/instructive exercise to present a specific “problem” to us and let us 5-why it in comments, to see what (different?) answers we come up with.

    Like “It’s hard to get clothing made in the U.S.A.”
    or something garment related.

  19. Sandy Peterson says:

    I love to read your blog, and I love the way you write, and the things you write about are not boring! You open my eyes to a lot of things that I wouldn’t hear about from any other place. And I don’t post all the time because I don’t want to be annoying. And having met you, it makes your posts more personal and I like your sense of humor – I know I’ve said that before. So keep it up!!

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