Lean Chicken Incident

Slippery Wet. This image is CC0!

One standard method of Lean to find root causes of a problem is the “5 Why” method. It is quite simple:

Let us look at an exaggerated example. The symptom I want to start with is the classical joke about the chicken crossing the road. As you can see, even seemingly trivial starting points can lead to severe underlying root causes.

  1. Question: Why did the chicken cross the road? Answer: Because the gate was open.
  2. Q: Why was the fence open? A: Because the farmer did not close it in the evening.
  3. Q: Why did the farmer forget to close the gate? A: Because he was drunk.
  4. Q: Why was the farmer drunk? A: Because his wife had left him.
  5. Q: Why did his wife leave him? A: Because he is an alcoholic.

You see the pattern: Rephrase each answer to a “why” question as a new why question until you reach an answer which reveals a real issue. The method is called “5 Why”, because usually around the fifths time you ask you get a good answer. In general somewhere between the fourth and the sevenths answer some truth will show up. Actually, in my example, the answer number 3 was already a good one. Number 5 is just a kind of rephrasing the earlier answer. This is also a good indicator for a root cause: When answers start to circle around the same issue, you are near the root.

My example may have started with a funny line, but it is meant serious. It is not uncommon that minor matters in one’s life have a root cause which is a lot bigger. Would you have accepted the shortcut? As a cross-check replace the chicken incident by something more usual.

Side remark: No, I don’t have any prejudices against farmers and alcoholism. Starting with the classical “Why did the chicken cross the road?” it was just one way to create such a chain. It could have been the postman in a hurry or a child who drove on a bicycle and therefore forgot to close the fence. Or somebody else…

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