THE original title of this article was to have been "Tell me how you do root cause analysis and I'll tell you how stupid you are." We couldn't use it, however, for two major reasons: One, it's too long a title. Two, it could put off a lot of readers with a straight to the gut accusation, even if it's true.

This came to me when I read a social media post on a bad 5Y experience by one factory director as a prelude to solving oft-repeated raw material shipment delays. Delays result in a lot of waste and lost revenue because of the waiting process, one of the great evils in production management.

Sakichi Toyoda (1867-1930), the founder of Toyota, will surely applaud from his grave when people use his "five whys" or 5Y technique, which is used today by many dynamic organizations. The logic is easy to understand. To remove grass that is choking roses in your garden, you must remove the roots instead of simply trimming.

The factory director explained his predicament. The first why was asked: "Why do we have an oft-repeated delay in the delivery of our imported raw materials?" His team's first answer was: "Because the raw materials were not released on time by the Bureau of Customs (BoC)."

The second why was then asked: "Why were the raw materials not released on time?" The answer was: "The BoC authorized signatory was absent." It was followed by the third: "Why was the BoC signatory absent?" which was answered with "Because the signatory was afflicted by Covid-19." The fourth: "Why was the signatory afflicted by Covid-19?"

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At this point, I could imagine all team members were almost chuckling to death. The answer was: "Because he was unvaccinated and refused to follow health protocols."

But how would they know that? Were they privy to the BoC signatory's work style and health life? The team appears to be at the dead end of the exercise and yet wanted to strictly follow asking the fifth "why" as the minimum requirement: "Why was the BoC signatory unvaccinated and refused to follow health protocols?"

The team could have given an answer until they noticed that the factory director was no longer amused. Of course, I'm guessing as I was not there to witness but surely the effect of asking "five whys" in that context would have definitely resulted in a comical exercise if it was done recklessly.

Asking "five whys" as a root cause analytical tool can't be used to dissect issues that are beyond the control of any organization. If you can't control the result, why bother? Even if you keep on asking more than 30 whys, the answers that you get will not help you solve a problem if the answers result in an indictment of the BoC for its lack of a robust business continuity plan.

The biggest question of all is why would the absence of some government signatories contribute to the temporary downfall of an importer? It beats me. Peter Drucker (1909-2005), the father of modern management said it straight: "You can't manage what you can't measure." In this article's context, "measure" means "control," meaning if you can't control the absences of signatories at BoC, then why bother at all?

The correct answer to the first why is not "the raw materials were not released on time by the BoC." You can't use that because it's not within the control of anyone outside the government. I'm sure there are many plausible answers within the control of that factory like "because our purchasing manager failed to order on time from the foreign supplier," "because our inventory clerk failed to inform the purchasing manager of our dwindling stock," or "because everyone thought we have enough supply of the subject raw materials."

The trouble is that any of those three could trigger a word war between and among concerned workers and department managers.

This brings us to another issue of "five whys" being misused. It's a basic management principle that we focus on the issue rather than blame someone inside the organization. Blaming workers or their managers will not help solve a problem. Find solutions, instead of focusing on the fault of people. American industrialist Henry Ford (1863-1947) said: "Don't find fault. Find a remedy." If you disobey Ford, the blaming habit could destroy the objective process of coming out with the best possible solution.

Fault-finding is everywhere, including in the corporate world. What will you do, therefore, when your team members start accusing one another of being the reason for the company's trouble? You should stop them right away.

Remind problem-solving teams that they can't ask "five whys" if the purported answers direct them to two things: If it directs you to people, events, things or places that are beyond the company's control, and if it brings everyone to a situation when they start pointing their middle fingers.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant in human resources and total quality management. Chat with him via Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter or send feedback to [email protected] or via