Public Housing and Process Improvement: How Asking “Why” 5 Times Can Help You Get To The Root Of The Problem

Get to the Root of It All:

If you read anything I write, I am always advocating for public housing authorities to do a better job really analyzing problems before jumping to a solution.  Asking why is something that children do at the most basic level but it could also be just what is needed at your housing authority to figure out the root cause of issues.   5 Whys is something used in lean process improvement, Six Sigma Lean and any other process improvement program you could think of.   This is one of the simplest tools you can use and sometimes people do not take it seriously enough.

Asking the question “why” multiple times can help you get down to the root issues of a problem.  They call it 5 whys because usually after asking why 5 times you are where you need to be.  I have found that I do not always need to ask the question 5 times or end up asking some follow up questions but it will usually help me drive down deep enough.

Advantages of using (5) Whys

  • Identify issue
  • See if there are patterns between different root causes
  • Easy

When Is 5 Whys Most Useful?

  • When the issue involves humans
  • Can be used ad hoc or as part of a project.

Instructions 5 Whys

  1. Write down whatever your problem might be.
  2. Go ahead and ask the question, “Why is this problem taking place?” and write the answer down
  3. If that answer does not get to the main cause, ask why again and write the answer below.
  4. Keep going until you get to the root cause.

5 Whys Example

Problem Statement: Interim Reviews are coming back incomplete

1. Why are interim reviews coming back incomplete
– Our customers are confused about what they need to fill out

2. Why are our customers confused about the paperwork they are filling out?
– Because we make them fill out so much paperwork.

3. Why do we put so much paperwork in the file?
– Because HUD makes us fill out so many forms?

4. Why does HUD make us fill out so many forms?
– Actually HUD only makes us do two forms, the rest are ours

5. Why do we have so many forms?
– Well Bob who used to be the manager 7 years ago thought we needed these 7 forms  to protect us just in case.

I have seen this in the housing authority world.  The forms pile up and are thought to be be necessary but we then find out that it is layered on over countless years.  In this situation, the staff now knows that many of the forms are not indeed mandated and that the root cause of having them is holdover beliefs from previous years.

I like to use fish-bone diagrams to help determine all the possible causes before doing a 5 whys.  I will explain that tool in a different post.  It helps you get all the problems that might be the reason for the large issue.  It is a targeted brainstorming.  If you have too many problems after finishing a fish-bone, you can use a PICK chart to narrow.  Again, I will come back to this later.  For now, give the 5 Whys a try and see if that is helpful.


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