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The 5 Whys of Six Sigma

Instructor: Dr. Douglas Hawks

Douglas has two master's degrees (MPA & MBA) and is currently working on his PhD in Higher Education Administration.

In process improvement work, it's important to ask 'why' some steps are the way they are. In this lesson, we'll discuss the Six Sigma principle of the 5 Whys and how it can provide important insight and answers.

Six Sigma and The 5 Whys

Six Sigma is the leading methodology for process improvement work aimed at eliminating waste, defects, and inefficiencies from any process. The ideas behind Six Sigma were developed by manufacturing engineers at Motorola in the mid-1980s.

It's important to know that Six Sigma is a methodology or an approach to improving processes. While the term 'six sigma' was trademarked by Motorola in 1991, there is no certifying body or organization that gives out 'green belt' or a 'black belt' in Six Sigma. Anyone can apply Six Sigma principles, regardless if they have decades of experience with Six Sigma or they have just researched the principles online.

One of the central principles to Six Sigma is known as the 5 Whys. The principle of the 5 Whys simply states that when you are analyzing a process, or even just a single step in that process, you ask at least five 'why' questions. Behind the principle of the 5 Whys is the belief that each time you ask 'why,' you learn more and more about the purpose of a process and why it exists in its current form.

The Reason We Ask Why

The reason it's so important to ask 'why' at least five times is because processes change frequently, but our understanding of how different steps in that process are related doesn't change at the same pace. Over time, as a process changes again and again, some steps become legacy steps, or steps that are no longer needed and contribute to inefficiencies. Legacy steps exist because as processes change and are updated the impact on other parts of the process aren't considered. Using Six Sigma and the 5 whys, we can uncover those steps and either modify them or eliminate them, making the process more efficient.

An Example: Travel Receipts

John is the CEO of an advertising firm with salespeople and project managers on the road almost constantly. So, like every company he had worked for, John made the policy that to be reimbursed for travel costs, the traveler had to provide a receipt. As far as he knows, they are; his accountants haven't had any problems, and his audits are always clean.

Then, a new accounting manager - one trained in Six Sigma - starts working for John. A couple weeks after starting, Sandy, the new accounting manager, asks to meet with John.

  • The 1st Why

After some small chat, Sandy asks John what seems like an easy question. 'Why do employees need to turn in receipts for meals and taxi rides?'

John almost seems surprised an accountant would ask that question. 'So we know how much money to reimburse them for a trip,' John answered, feeling like he was stating the obvious.

  • The 2nd and 3rd Whys

'Why do you need to know how much money to reimburse them? Why not just ask them?' Sandy quickly asked before John had much of a chance to think of where the conversation was going.

'So we don't overpay them. The receipts are proof that they actually spent their money. What is this conversation about? Did you find someone stealing from me by lying about their travel?' John asked, assuming that was the reason for Sandy's persistence.

'No,' she replied. 'I'm just trying to understand a quick analysis I did.'

John replied, impressed Sandy was already looking for ways to improve things; 'that's great! Any other questions I can answer?'

  • The 4th Why

'Just a couple more,' Sandy said. 'Why are you sure a receipt is actually evidence of THEIR purchase?'

'Because it tells me the vendor, the time, the place, and the amount…' John cut himself off, as he realized the real answer to Sandy's question: a receipt is evidence of a purchase but not that a specific individual made a purchase.

  • The 5th Why

Before he could articulate that, Sandy asked one more question, 'And why don't you want to over pay them?'

Confidently, John said, 'Because I'm the CEO and responsible for controlling costs so the shareholders realize the return on their investment.' He felt proud he ended with a CEO-type answer.

  • The Analysis and Solution

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