What does a Fishbone have to do with the Toyota Production system?

Five Whys.

No, not five Y’s, like you see in an excited text message saying “Heyyyyy!!!”

The Five Whys technique of figuring out problems in a business.

This is a useful tool in finding reasons for manufacturing issues, customer service issues, and opportunities to innovate your offering in new ways.

The technique was pioneered at Toyota in order to find and eradicate the root causes for problems, not just the surface level issues which keep repeating.

This root cause analysis is often illustrated as multiple lines of root causes all flowing to a central major issue, which looks like a fishbone. Hence, this analysis is often called a “fishbone diagram”, although the official name is an Ishikawa diagram after the man who developed it.

So how does the Five Whys technique work?

First, you find a problem you want to solve (a great start for an innovation project).

Then you ask why that problem occurred (what was the core issue).

But this will usually only get you to a surface level issue.

You then take that issue and ask why that issue occurred.

And you do this a total of five times. By now, you have probably landed at a root cause, and if you fix that root cause, it should prevent all of the higher level issues from ever happening again.

Here is an example:

Problem: 5% of customers complain that their new TV is arriving with a scratch on the screen.

  1. Why? Because the scratch happens in the box while they are being transported to shops <– Now ask why this happened.
  2. Why? Because the remote control in the box is pressing against the screen.
  3. Why? Because the remote control is not fastened to anything and can slide around during transport.
  4. Why? Because the remote is dropped into the box after the TV has already been inserted.
  5. Why? Because the assembly line which is used previously had space to slide the remote along the back of the screen, but new packaging doesn’t have that dedicated space anymore.

By the time you get to the fifth why, you can a very specific, well understood problem you can solve.

This can be done for almost any type of problem your company has, from marketing to manufacturing to dealing with a network of suppliers.

Just make sure to stay unbiased and analytical when asking why. There may be a tendency to divert blame, especially if people feel like they are being accused of causing an issue. But by asking the five whys, you can get to a situation where the true issue is know, and an innovative solution can finally fix it.

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.