The Three Hows

If you have followed my blog, you know that I am somewhat critic of root cause analysis like the “5 Whys“, especially when applied to non-purely-technical issues.

On the other hand I am actually pretty much in favour of more systemic tools like the Cause-Effect Diagrams and the Thinking Process, despite the risk of using an oversimplified and/or incomplete version of these methods.

While preparing for my “Agile as a Systemic Change” presentation I realised one more detail that confirmed my skepticism in the 5 Whys: the lack of circularity!

One of the peculiar characteristics of a system is the presence of loops, i.e. cause-effect connections that end up creating a closed loop, reinforcing a certain situation, like this:

Cause Effect Diagram.png

These loops are exactly the features we search for in a system as they are the endemic and self-enforcing reasons of the behaviour of a system.

On the top of asking why – which is, in my view, a dangerous way to analyse a system – the 5 whys is a way to “go back” in the cause-effect chain for a while:

5 Whys 1.png
[The picture is built from right to left: we find A, we search for the cause finding B, we search for the cause of B we find C, …]

If we’re lucky we might even find a loop:

5 Whys 2.png

but if it happens it happens by pure chance.

What I recently used with some success is, instead, a technique I developed and called Three Hows, where, for each effect, I ask something like “How does effect A happen?”, and asking this questions at least three times but usually even more (“And how else does effect A happen?”, “And how else?”):

3 Hows.png

And then back for each cause of A:


Thus maximising the chances of finding a loop:


In this process, I refrain from asking “why” as a question and use “how”, though also “what” is a good alternative. Anyway, I try as much as possible to use the client’s language and the client’s reality, avoiding to add my content in the discussion, even in the form of a question.

As I said, I had some success with it and I will test it more on the field. At the same time, I am looking for your feedback: does it work for you? Either way, I’d love to hear your experiences with this.

2 thoughts on “The Three Hows

  1. I always treated 5 whys more like a general tool which helps you to dig deeper/look for route causes than a strict method applied in orthodox way.
    We don’t get attached either to number five or a specific question “why.” Our “5 whys” ( ) can consist fewer questions and only one of them can be “why.”
    Generally this or that technique is only a tool used to find the problem.
    And regarding loops – you don’t have to seek long until you find them. The trick is what do you do to break them or at least change their effect on the team/project/you-name-it.

  2. Pawel,
    Agree on your comments!
    One of the reasons that inspired the post is that I know many people who use the 5 whys almost religiously. Another is that I saw many teams stopping the search when they found one “root cause”, i.e. when they gave a meaning to what they sensed regardless on whether this meaning is the right one, the only one and whether solving that root cause will actually improve the system. They basically avoided searching “deeper”, where “deeper” doesn’t mean “back” but rather “around”, i.e. for other causes of a certain situation.
    As per loops, I agree with you, they are quite easy to find, provided the people want to find them, which is, IMO the major blocker usually…

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