Peeling the Onion to Conquer Problems with the Five Ws

In bringing order to your business, you must systematically conquer problems using the Five WsWHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE and WHY.

In journalism, the Five Ws make up the basic formula for telling the “full” story of an event. Some in lean management circles believe that to find the root cause of a problem you need to ask WHY at least five times. For many years, as I built the systems for our company, I called this “peeling the onion.”

As an onion has many layers that cover its core, problems in your business—such as recurring errors or bottlenecks—can be buried under layers of chaos, assumptions, poor planning, neglect, bad training, etc. that need to be peeled away one by one to get to the true cause of the recurring problem.

WHY is a great tool for finding real solutions. You might be surprised how many people never ask that question, and just continue to live with the problem. The advantage of asking WHY: it’s simple. You don’t have to fill out charts or spreadsheets to find the root cause—the “full story.”

As a business owner, you’ve no doubt already discovered that in dealing with some people―the WHO―you will often encounter push-back. The closer you come to exposing the root cause of a problem, the more pain you seem to stir up.

Sometimes getting to the truth of an issue can be emotional, so asking the right WHY question takes practice and patience. However, if you’re going to fix the problems in your business permanently, you have to risk stepping on some toes―you have to lead.

Example of the “Peeling the Onion” process and dealing with the Five Ws

  • A customer has called to report an error and is rejecting a job due to inconsistent color.

When an error or bottleneck (non-conforming event) occurs in your business, the first thing that needs to be determined is WHAT happened. Next, the problem should be logged into a database so after you correct it in the short term, the problem is not forgotten and swept under the rug.

  • WHAT―The job was printed with inconsistent color

Next, determine WHEN the non-conforming event happened. This is very important! Your company should have a written policy about informing customers of any problems with your product within a certain amount of time in order to be under warranty. You wouldn’t want a customer calling six months after a job was printed expecting a refund.

  • WHEN―For this example, the job printed with inconsistent color happened five days ago

Then, determine WHERE the non-conforming event took place in order to identify the process that needs to be corrected permanently.

  • WHERE―The job with inconsistent color was printed in the pressroom on the six-color press.

Next, determine WHO was involved in the non-conforming event. In many cases, there will be more than one person involved

  • WHO―The person who operated the six-color press, and produced the job with inconsistent color.

Now that you have the WHO, it’s time to break out the WHY tool. Meet with those who were involved in the error and start peeling the onion further.

Philip Beyer, founder/president of Beyer Printing and Ebiz Products LLC in Nashville, TN, is a chronic entrepreneur, business systems analyst and consultant, author of "System Busters: How to Stop Them in Your Business," and an InterTech Award recipient for the design and development of System100™ business process management software. Philip speaks to business owners across the country on how to bring lean, sustainable order to their businesses.
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  • David Cole

    Great blog! I am glad to know I am not the only person that tries to do this when solving problems. It’s a great way to find lasting solutions that will really fix the problem.