Tag Archives: 5 Whys

Using Lean for small practices

It’s about that time of year again when members of the Office of Continuous Improvement are getting prepared to attend the Michigan Lean Consortium conference. At the conference members of our office will have the opportunity to hear from other Lean practitioners and learn about their Lean journey. In addition, the Office of Continuous Improvement will also be displaying a poster board to showcase how we have implemented Lean here at Michigan Tech.

When we practice Lean we often think of an effect that will benefit a large group of people or an entire process. However, Lean can be used in the most simple of processes, like creating a poster board for the MLC conference.

When we made the poster for the MLC conference, we used the 5 whys tool to decide what information we should include. As a result, it allowed us to narrow down our topic to include information that we believe the customer (other Lean practitioners in this instance) would value most.

After we came to a common agreement on the topic we did an affinity diagram to figure out how we wanted to display the information. An affinity diagram is where everyone in the group writes down ideas on sticky notes and then the notes are filtered into categories for organization. This allowed everyone to have a voice in the discussion and organizing the thoughts into categories allows everyone to be on the same page.

As a result of using Lean tools, we were able to effectively collaborate to get the poster done in a timely matter.




We wanted to create a lasting impression for those that will be encountering our board so we came to the agreement to include some of Houghton’s Iconic structures. We did this to draw the audience’s attention while also including information that we thought they would find of value. As a result of using some of the Lean tools, this simple process of making a poster became an even simpler process with an even better end product.


Root Cause Analysis- Saving the fish

A few weeks ago, I learned the importance of Root Cause Analysis and the difference a few LEAN tools can make. Unfortunately I had to learn this lesson the hard way.

My room is filled with fish. Between my roommates and I, we take care of  four Betta fish, two feeder fish, and a goldfish. I can admit that it is a lot of work. One night  I noticed a problem with one of our Bettas, Haru. Haru had gone from his usual energetic self, to sitting on the bottom of the tank and I hadn’t a clue as to why.  Immediately I jumped into action, trying everything I could to make the little guy feel better.  I tried everything, heating his tank, cleaning his water, even an extra snack for the night.  The next morning, Haru seemed worse.  Within two days, we had lost Haru to whatever had made him sick.  I tried everything to save the little guy, except applying my LEAN thinking.
After loosing Haru, I decided to learn from my mistakes.  My biggest mistake of treating Haru was that I hadn’t preformed any form of Root Cause Analysis.   The problem with ignoring Root Cause Analysis is that I only treated the symptoms, and I never treated the source of the symptoms. The trick to lean is that you have to find the problem in order to fix the problem.

I decided to use a Fishbone Diagram to try and determine the cause of Haru’s Sickness.  To start the Fishbone Diagram, my roommate and I brainstormed everything we could think of that might have caused Haru’s sickness.  Modifying the Diagram slightly for our fish tanks, we separated these problems into categories.  We decided to group them by, problems with materials, problems in his environment, problems with the way people interact with the fish, and procedures in place for the fish routine and maintenance. Once we had our diagram set out, we started asking why. For each problem we listed, we first determined if the problem existed in our tank systems.  Then We used the 5 whys to find the cause of each problem.  After all of our analysis, we determined that Haru’s sickness was caused by poor water quality.  The water quality was a result of over feeding, or contamination of the tanks.  The overfeeding was a result of a lack of feeding schedule.  The fish were being double fed because we didn’t know that the other room mate had already fed them.  The contamination was caused by miscommunication to guests. we never made it quite clear who, or what could touch each fish’s tank. Once we knew the root cause, we were able to fix the problem. By posting a feeding schedule and rules for the tanks we have been able keep all of our other fish happy and healthy.
In the world of problem solving, root cause analysis is easy to forget. It can become a habit to treat the symptoms without ever discovering the real problem. As with our Haru,  treating the symptoms can have disastrous consequences. As I continue learning and using LEAN, I will have to remember, You have to find the problem to fix the problem.

Asking why
The pink notes helped us to visualize the answers to some of our Whys.
Finding the possible problems
The blue notes were all of the possible causes of Betta sickness.

An Apple a Day Keeps the Problems Away

Lean is like eating an apple. There’s the skin that we all see-it has a color, a texture, and a stem. However, once you break through the skin with your teeth you see a different color, texture, and the core. This is the same principle in Lean and problem solving through the use of the five why’s.

You’re given a scenario (the skin), you see the results of the problem (the color), you see the repercussions of the results (the texture), and you may even see a sliver of the actual problem (the stem). Yet, until you sink your teeth into the scenario you won’t truly see what’s underneath. By taking a bite you slowly begin revealing a new color, a new texture, and eventually the core, or in this case the root cause.

For a moment let’s pretend that it only takes five bites to get to the core of the apple. Each bite represents one of the five why’s.

Imagine a woman who cuts off the ends of a ham before putting it in the oven. Her husband asks “Why do you cut the ends off of the ham before cooking it?” *Bite* She replies, “because it’s how my mother cooked it.” So the husband goes to his mother-in-law and asks, “why do you cut off the ends of the ham before cooking it?” *Bite* She replies, “because it’s how my mother always made it.” So the husband goes to the grandmother and asks why she cooked ham this way *Bite* here he got the same answer that he got from his wife, and his mother-in-law. Finally, he asks the great grandmother “Why have you always cooked your ham without the ends on?” *Bite* She replies, “so I could cook as much ham as possible,” the husband then asks, “why couldn’t you cook the whole ham at once?” *Bite* and she replies, “because the pan I had was too small.”

For generations, the women thought this was how they were supposed to cook a ham simply because their mother before them had cooked it that way, but not once did they stop to recognize that there may be an underlying method to their madness. Over the years this resulted in much ham, time, and money wasted for no real reason.

By asking ourselves five why questions we allow ourselves to get to the root cause. Now, if the husband had only asked four why questions, his last answer would’ve been, “so I could cook as much ham as possible,” this really wouldn’t have answered his question-it would’ve gotten him closer but not to the root cause. The same is true with eating an apple-by taking few too little bites you don’t ever see the core, all you recognize is the apple in your hand. However, if you take another bite you may just find the seeds, and your perspective and appreciation for the apple in your palm has changed.

*Note: The example of the ham is one that was introduced to me by Daniel Bennett of Public Safety and Police Services here at MTU.

What are some areas of waste around you? Have you properly identified the root cause? If not, try utilizing the ‘5 why’s” they may be able to help you find a problem you didn’t originally see.

Making Safety a Part of Your Lean Practice

Implementing safety and Lean together can help your organization increase productivity by reducing the wastes associated with a hazardous environment. Lean and other continuous improvement methodologies enable a safety-focused environment, by using problem solving and root cause analysis to correct the true cause of safety hazards in the workplace.

Here are some examples of how you can use Lean to make improvements to safety and increase safety awareness in your workplace:

  • Reducing excess inventory helps increase floor space and reduces potential tripping hazards. Other safety related to storage solutions might include avoiding piling boxes or other supplies on top of filing cabinets, shelves, etc.
  • While investigating workplace incidents, the “5 Whys” could be used to get down to the root causes of the accident and make improvements to prevent the error from occurring again. But remember, almost all system failures result from a combination of a number of factors and failures. You must continue to probe the circumstances, rules, policies, and people around the incident to search for all of the root causes.
  • Error-proofing can be used to avoid or prevent safety hazards.
  • Having “a place for everything and everything in its place” ensures that items are put back where they belong, and can be put back in a safe location.
  • When process mapping, safety risks can also be identified as improvement opportunities so that these risks can be mitigated.
  • Tracking  metrics related to safety can help identify any trends that may exist regarding safety incidents in order to identify opportunities for improvement.
  • Standard work can be created for workplace safety procedures in order to ensure that the task is completed safely each time.
  • Safety topics, recent safety incidents, and safety metrics can all be discussed in daily team meetings to increase safety awareness.
Example safety metric.

Those are a few examples of how an organization can make safety a part of their Lean culture. Keep in mind, a successful safety culture requires the same management support and participation as successfully making Lean a part of your organization’s culture!