Asking the “Six Whats” Will Help You Strengthen Workplace Problem Solving

It’s an understatement to suggest this is a time for creative problem-solving in our organizations. Everything about how and where and when we work is being challenged along with how we engage and serve our customers in the marketplace.

Too often, we react to symptoms or throw solutions at poorly defined problems. The failure to get to the root cause and underlying assumptions behind something that seems to be a problem results in half-measures and new, resultant problems. Consider this Hall-of-Fame list of cures that were targeted squarely at symptoms:

A Few Horribly Misdiagnosed Problems:

  • Our strategy is great! We have a sales problem.
  • Our marketing is great! We have a sales problem.
  • We don’t have a strategy problem. We have a profit problem. (Sears CEO….Sears was once the world’s largest retailer.)
  • Our customer service numbers are heading in the wrong direction—we need to restructure the area. (Every dumb executive who views restructuring as the first step of solving a bigger problem.)
  • Our business is losing ground to the competition—we need to reorganize. (Same dumb executives as above.)
  • Our competitors are eating our lunch. Our product team has missed the mark. 
  • The project team can’t get out of first gear—we need to change the project manager.
  • We won’t compete in the low-end of the market—there’s no margin in it. (Within two years, the low-end ate the market.)
  • He misfired on that hire—I’m not sure we should continue to invest in his development as a manager. (He’s a CEO now.)
  • I know she was a first-time manager, but she’s failing, and it’s time to replace her. (She’s running a business unit in a major tech company.)

Should I keep going?

These are painful examples of a rush to judgment with a proposed cure that in most cases made the situation worse and in some cases proved catastrophic to people and organizations. How many variations of these have you encountered in your career and workplace?

The challenge is how to stop sloppy problem solving and a rush to cure, particularly when you’re not in a power position. The solution might be counter-intuitive, but I want you to slow things down to move faster.

Slow-Down to Go Faster

Unless there’s a fire or life and death issue, it’s potentially priceless to slow down and uncover the real problem in front of you. In most cases, we see the symptoms and focus on those. While tackling a symptom might feel good, it’s the systemic issues we want to fix to eliminate future problems and improve the situation.

Sidebar on Systemic Issues:

The quality guru and management giant, W. Edwards Deming, made the case many years ago that many/most of the problems in our organizations are systemic (human-made and perpetuated) and based on flawed logic or assumptions. He challenged us in his famous Red Bead experiment to see the ridiculous flaws we perpetuate with poorly conceived management systems and to look deeper and improve design to eliminate these flaws. The “Six What” questions described below help you with that critical deep dive.

Of Five Whys and Six Whats

Many of us are familiar with the “Five Whys” technique for uncovering someone’s logic and thinking behind a position or need. (You keep asking “Why?” and eventual clarity emerges or, the person on the receiving end grows frustrated and storms away.) For problem situations where the rush to judgment is present, I encourage you to slow things down a bit and help the people involved find the root cause by asking the “Six Whats.”

  1. What are we observing?
  2. What’s causing what we’re seeing?
  3. What’s the root cause of the cause?
  4. What’s the systemic issue behind the root cause?
  5. What are the assumptions behind the systemic issue?
  6. What problem am I really trying to solve?

Use the questions to excavate until you connect the root cause to the system it is a part of. Then and only then, start working on describing the problem you are striving to solve.

In group settings, make sure to capture and keep the answers to each question visible. Guide the group through one question at a time (parallel thinking) and then loop back as needed to refine and revise.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Quit solving for symptoms. You may have a revenue shortfall or a drop in customer satisfaction or adverse change to your key performance indicators, just beware leaping to conclusions. The reasons behind most problems are typically hidden below the surface waiting to be uncovered. When faced with something heading the wrong way, it’s time to get out your shovel and start excavating. You’ll be surprised at what you uncover.


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