Editorial / 12 Jun 2022

Be a Finder of Lost Causes

by Greg Newbold, Guest Contributor

We start with the impossible: humans are a risk-taking species. Our existence today is built on a mountain of risks taken in the past. Death, injury and blood have paved the path that leads from avoiding snakes, toxic berries and cave bears to a safer and more productive world.

Evolution’s gift
If we are all just risk-happy humans, how did we ever come to take workplace health and safety seriously? The answer lies in another evolved human gift: curiosity. Humans are constantly asking ‘why this?’, ‘why that?’, always turning over stones to see what lies beneath, always wanting to know what’s over the horizon or around the corner. We can’t help it. We can’t stop it. And this constant need to ask questions and test solutions has given us many gifts, including the means to solve problems wherever we encounter them.

The 5 whys
When something goes wrong, or there is a problem, safety-related or not, it pays to ask why. Indeed, it pays to ask why on average about 5 times for any given issue. Note that this isn’t a mathematical law of why-ness; it’s what years of experience have taught H & S managers. It goes something like this:

  1. Why did the cable break? Because it was old and rusty.
  2. Why was it old and rusty? Because nobody replaced it.
  3. Why did nobody replace it? Because there wasn’t a spare.
  4. Why wasn’t there a spare? Because nobody ordered one.
  5. Why did nobody order one? Because there was no schedule or process for checking cables and ordering them.
  6. Why was there no schedule or process? Because we were busy doing other things.

OK, I’ve given you a 6-handed version of the 5 whys. And I’ve done it so you don’t get stuck at 5. Sometimes you need to go further. Sometimes the journey ends at 3 or 4.

The 5 whys method was invented in the 1930s by Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Industries. Its continued usefulness stems not from being a complete problem solving method but from being super basic. It’s the best first step, even when confronting complex problems. Its prime virtue lies in its ability to get past symptoms and drill down to causes. Asking why 5 times (on average) will get you to the root of things. We need to know the root cause of things because that is the bit that needs fixing, not the symptoms that sit on top of it.

Dude! It can’t be that simple!
Yes, it can. Yes, it is. But first we must overcome another biological trait in us. We tend to panic when things go wrong. Our heartbeat goes up, blood pressure up, adrenalin and cortisol levels up. Our breathing gets shallow, our vision gets narrow, and our brain starts to make dangerous assumptions about what needs to be done. Rash decisions are made.

So, first up, when confronting any problem, issue, event or accident, we need to take a breath. Better still, take several breaths. We cannot proceed intelligently towards finding the root cause of things if we are not calm. As the instructions for assembling a Japanese electronic device in the 1960s noted: ‘Step 1 – obtain peace of mind.’

Avoid blame gaming
Assigning blame is a very primate-evolved means to make us comfortable. We see it in chimpanzees and bonobos as well as ourselves. If it’s his/her/their fault, then it’s not my fault. Whew!

But studies and incident reviews usually point to multiple contributors to an event. Yes, we should have had a better process for checking cable safety. Yes, we should have had more experienced people in charge of the cable. Yes, we should have been more careful. The point of the 5 whys is to fix problems, not shaft the guy who was on deck when the cable broke.

Think smaller
Companies don’t need big problem-solving machinery to get to root causes. The second virtue of the 5 whys is that it’s simple. Everyone can play. It’s just a matter of getting together and asking why. This has the happy outcome of having everyone involved in the problem also involved in the solution

We all can ask the 5 whys. We all should. In the family, in the workplace, in the park, in the classroom, the 5 whys cover your bases. You will be pleasantly surprised at the truths you uncover and the actions that flow from them.

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