5 Whys for Entrepreneurs

This articles presents a 5 Whys Lean Startup Example – how to apply lean to entrepreneurship.

I’m delighted to see Lean Thinking applied to areas outside of “traditional” areas such as manufacturing. I’m especially happy to see Lean Thinking helpful to entrepreneurs, because I see entrepreneurs as the lifeblood of economies.  And, the application is appropriate: startup companies have little resources to work with – Lean Thinking is especially helpful and practical in high-constraint environments.

In a recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, Eric Ries, shows how the the Five Whys can be applied to the startup 1.  As an experienced and successful entrepreneur, Ries believes that maximizing learning in a startup is critical skill that needs to be embedded in the culture and supported by process.

One technique he believes maximizes learning with the least amount of effort and optimizes learning is the Five Whys.  He gives this example of the 5 Whys in a software startup, Lean for Software,

  1. A new release broke a key feature for customers. Why? Because a particular server failed.
  2. Why did the server fail? Because an obscure subsystem was used in the wrong way.
  3. Why was it used in the wrong way? The engineer who used it didn’t know how to use it properly.
  4. Why didn’t he know? Because he was never trained.
  5. Why wasn’t he trained? Because his manager doesn’t believe in training new engineers, because they are “too busy.”

Ries then goes on to say that traditional Lean Thinking (Toyota Production System) advocates fixing the root cause only.  This is not completely true.  Yes, attack the root cause, but Lean Thinking does advocate preventive measures along the way to the symptom.  In other words, Eric Ries’ application of the 5 Whys is true to the Toyota approach:

  1. Fix the Server
  2. Change the subsystem to make it less error prone
  3. Educate the Engineer
  4. Have a conversation with the manager

Ries calls the Five Whys a “natural speed regulator” – that is, the 5 Whys prevent startups from going too fast.  This is ideal because this approach ties progress to learning, not just to execution and results.

It’s Your Turn

How have you applied the principles of Lean Thinking to your world?  If outside of traditional areas of application (manufacturing, etc.), tell us how and where.

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