Fixing Causes Instead of Symptoms

Fixing Causes Instead of Symptoms


Hi, I’m Tom Melton, and I’m with Melton leadership. You know I work everyday with some of Denver’s best leaders in the process of running organizations and building complex teams, and they realize as successful as they are, they want to get better. That’s how I help.

I help leaders be on a path to better.

Today I want to talk about a secret that if you apply it to your life, I believe will change your life. It’ll help you figure out how to really solve problems. Deciding where is the problem and where is the symptom? The principle is that the symptom is always the last thing to show up, so how do we do this? Well it’s a simple paradigm and I want to share it with you.

This it best demonstrated through a story that I ran into a while ago and it basically is a plant manager taking his friend  through his plant. The friend is a systems thinker – the way that he thinks is the system as opposed to just linear of where cause and effect are closely related. So the plant manager is taking his friend through the plant and he’s kind of showing off a little bit, how this thing works. And as they walk in there, he notices as the plant manager that there’s a pool of oil on the ground. He immediately turns to the one of the workers there and says, “Get over here and clean up this oil”. And so the worker comes over and starts doing it, and the friend says to the plant manager, “Could I ask you a question?” The systems guy is asking. The plant manager says, “Sure, what do you got?” The friend says “Why is that oil there?” The plant manager looks at him somewhat incredulous, “I don’t know”.

Well he asked the guy, the worker, “Why is that oil there?” And the worker shrugs a little bit and looks up and says, “Well the heamer heimer is leaking.” And so the plant manager is satisfied with that and starts moving on. His friend says, “Well could I ask you another question? Why is theh eamer heimer leaking?” Plant manager doesn’t know and asks the worker. The worker goes up there and asks around and comes back, and in the plant manager says, “Why is it there?” The worker said,
“Well, actually the gasket on the heamer heimer is defective.” The manager said, “Okay, oh I know what you’re gonna ask, I’m getting the hang of this. Why is that defective, is that right?”

So that’s right, so he asked the worker again why is that defective and so the worker comes back and hees and haws a little bit and said, “Well, five years ago, the plant manager made a decision that in order to cut our expenses, we would buy the cheapest equipment and just live with the consequences.” 

So there they were living with the consequences.

The Five Why’s – asking “why” five times to solve a problem – had taken him from the symptom which is oil on the ground, all the way to the cause, which was the guy standing there – the plant manager. In many of our lives, this is the way it works, we overlook where this problem came from.

Classic example of this took place in 1990 to 1992 out in California where Sears, the great big retail operation, and they had auto repair places all over. They got a fifty percent increase in complaints about their service in their auto service areas, so the California bureaucracy that checked on that found out that they were on average charging two hundred and fifty dollars more than they were supposed to. And so rather than just saying Aha! we caught you, you’re guilty, they asked the question, “Why are they doing that?” And so they went the next why and the next why was, it turns out that they had changed the compensation plan from an hourly wage where men were paid to just kind of do the best work, to a competitive wage that was all on incentives and commission. And so they started trying to outdo each other and they were compensated by how much they brought in so it’s to their advantage to charge more.

Sears could have said, “Okay, we get you’re busted, it’s over,” but they said the next why – Why did they change the compensation?

It turns out that the management had made a decision that in order to cut expenses that they were going to try this new way of compensating and so they did that. And so somebody asked, well why did they make that change and so they went another round and they find out that they were very aware that they’re losing market share to some of the bigger companies around. And so that was their interpretation. And it led all the way back to the beginning of the management making these decisions.

The great thing about the Five Why process is when you do this, you’re actually able to change things. Most of us get frustrated with problems because we can’t change them; we do the same thing over and over expecting a different result and we get the same result because we get lost in symptoms.

So as we look at both of these examples of the plant manager with his systems-thinking-buddy and the Sears company and their service industry, the process that they applied, the Five Why’s, helped them to solve a problem and find out what the root is. You can imagine had they not done that, they would still be cleaning up the oil and getting better ways to clean the oil up, rather than asking why is the oil there in the first place. Same with Sears. Fnding out that it actually had to do with a management decision, they could actually change it. The beauty and the power of the Five Why’s is it allows you to actually get to the root of the problem instead of just dealing with the fruit of the problem.  

To reiterate, the symptom is always the last thing to show up. But we’re not caught in just trying to deal with symptoms. I know that in my life and I’m sure in your life we get caught in that pattern, but if we will take the time to ask Five Why’s, we’ll find that sometimes we’re the problem but sometimes it’s something else that we haven’t even looked at.

So I encourage you as you’re going through the day to try it. To take this secret of Five Why’s and apply it. I think if you do, you’ll find that your life will change. I promise you. Try it.

If you want to learn more about putting the Five Why’s into practice or being on a path to being a better leader, contact me today.