Solving Problems

Solving problems starts with asking the right questions. In fact asking the right question or questions will almost always produce the solution. It seems simple, but too often people try to find solutions without asking any questions let alone the right one.

 The concept of questions and questioning seemed like a great topic. Accounting is supposed to be the language of business so it is logical for accountants and auditors to have a high level of expertise in asking questions. I would like to toss in a few twists to the concept of questioning. I think it will take your perception of questioning to a different level.
 
We have heard a lot about lean thinking and lean manufacturing. One of the foundations of the lean movement came from the Toyota Production System or TPS. From lean thinking concepts The Five Why’s emerged from lean thinking concepts. It’s a very simple tool and makes you wonder why people don’t use it more frequently or more effectively.
 
The Five Why’s is a method for analyzing root causes and starts with identifying the problem. It then becomes a process for continually asking different “why” questions five times and maybe more in an effort to push the inquiry to greater levels. The concept assumes that five iterations of asking questions as to “why” usually will get you to a root cause. You push past making quick assumptions and falling into potential logic traps. The Five Why’s process forces you though a chain of increments from the effect through layers of abstraction to the root cause connected to the original problem and helps you locate a broken process or a behavior that can be altered.
 
What occurs with the Five Why’s is by asking questions you are able to separate symptoms from the actual cause of a problem. A very important point since symptoms will frequently camouflage the underlying causes of problems. Accordingly, following a discipline of always asking five different questions to get past symptoms in order locate the real cause of a problem results in more effective decision making.
 
Effective decision making is only one of the benefits of Five Why’s. It’s a simple process to follow and is easy to use since no special programs or tools are utilized. By quickly separating symptoms from problems makes it easier to identify the root causes of problems and allows for a comprehensive determination of relationships between causes of problems. There are a number of different trouble shooting techniques and the Five Why’s works well alone or when combined with other tools. Finally, the Five Why’s technique is not expensive and promotes and fosters teamwork.
 
You can utilize the Five Why’s technique individually or in team settings. Using a flip chart or a presentation board, write out the description of what you know about the problem. It is important to document and describe the problem as thoroughly as possible. Redefine the problem definition and attempt to reach a consensus of the real problem. Keep asking “why” the problem could occur and document the answers. If the answers fail to solve the problem, then keep asking “why” until you find a solution. When working in a team environment, make sure the team members agree with the solution and try to reach a resolution.
 
Some examples of problems or questions are provided below:
  • Why do accounting firms lose their focus on serving clients?
  • Why do accounting firms hold on to the concept of having paper files rather than “paperless” systems?
  • Why do accountants want to perform just accounting and tax services versus advisory support services?
  • Why do priorities and perceptions get changed?
  • Why do organizations lose sight of their core competencies?
  • Why do companies take unrealistic risks?
These represent only a small fraction of the types of questions that can be asked. By following your imagination, I’m sure you’ll come up with many more unique and challenging questions.
 
The technique of the Five Why’s will allow you to discover root causes very quickly. However, you need to guard against making mistakes in questions or answers that can produce false or confusing results. Another trap is not engaging in direct observations and utilizing casual guesswork or deduction to reach conclusions. It is critical to avoid speculation without firsthand observation of all the “why” questions being asked. The power of asking good probing questions and carefully pealing back the onion is what produces problem solving results. In a future post I’ll share with you some examples and ways you can use this tool to improve processes in an advisory/consulting environment. Good questioning.

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Lynn Northrup, CPA, CPIM - Lynn's focus is on building business value for both family-owned businesses and other CPAs. I also specialize in lean accounting, process improvement, internal control, and assessment of audit risk. Other accomplishments include publishing two books, development of self study programs for Bisk Education, and an Adjunct Professorship at Villanova University. My wife Jessica and I live in southwestern Colorado and we look forward to contributing to the AccountingWEB community.

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