Digging Deeper with The Five Whys

I first tried “The Five Whys” in a faculty meeting. It was an attempt to try something new in tackling a thorny problem.  This is new territory for me so it’s all a bit of an experiment.

I had another shot at at the HMAE Annual Conference  earlier this month where working with heads of school it was a bit more successful as a tool to help dig into a self generated “wicked bad problem”. Some of the slides I used to guide that exercise are on this page.

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I had read about the technique in both of these books and drew heavily on them for the presentation. I recommend both.

Ewan McIntosh’s “How To Come Up With Great Ideas And Actually Make Them Happen” is particularly useful in describing the journey of how to move through the three horizons from the current and problematic situation to that more desirable  place that’s a way off and may indeed remain a moving target. It’s in the second horizon where the work is done and where “The Five Whys” can be helpful.  It’s really handy for anyone thinking about  the practical  work of design thinking.  “Gamestorming” is a great source for a variety of creative and playful techniques including the Five Whys.

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Of course it all starts with a problem and by immersion in that problem.

The Five Whys is a great problem solving exercise enabling a below-the-surface dive into potential root causes. It’s a digging in interview technique that gets beyond the frequent dead end of the easy answer.

Ewan McIntosh explains how it was developed as a systematic problem-solving tool by Taiichi Ohno, the creator of the Toyota Production System

He gives two examples of the technique at work from the NHS (National Health Service, UK).st79-1223

Here’s one of them that starts with the all the inefficiency that results from patients arriving late in a hospital operating theater.

There is a useful toolkit from the London NHS. It has a couple of key reminders that this is about finding the source of a problem and not about finding someone to blame.

My plan at the HMAE was to demonstrate how it could be used by school leaders to identify troublesome cultural issues in schools. And of course it starts with finding the problem to work with.  The key thing here is that the person with the problem needs to be at the center of the process as problem finder and solution seeker.  This is not about the designer coming up with shiny new answers.

As Ewan McIntosh advises I stressed the need to deal with something significant and something over which they had a measure of control. (Not the local economy, for example, but something perhaps  in the systems, structures and culture of the school.)

And to find such a problem participants worked in groups of 3-5 in an exercise to identify a gap between what we know about learning that lasts and the all too common practices in schools. With that example  as a spur the next step was to identify a “Wicked Bad Problem” defined as something important, complex and intractable.

st46-7502And they came up with some really powerful issues primarily about the problem of cultural change.

So then it was time to apply the Five Whys to dig into the agreed upon mega problem. And so they did.

I was pleased by what happened – nothing like seeing everyone in the room deeply engaged  in conversation about shared concerns. And we even had to use the floor as surface space for writing was limited.  (The room was ideal for a lecture but not for small groups and interactive learning. )

And my problem was – time was short. I had things I wanted to get to. It was the classic lesson plan anxiety of covering the material. More about me than about them!

As a result I did not allow the necessary time for the process of delving let alone the time for generating ideas and potential solutions and sorting them out. I rushed things way too much. But then – I would really have needed a whole day at the very least!

I was pleased with how it went though.  I learned a lot. And the very useful feedback I asked for confirmed my thoughts about the value of the exercise. And the timing.

Next time!

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