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The School Improvement Specialists
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Are You Solving the Right Problem?

“If I had 60 minutes to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes defining it, and 5 minutes solving it.” Albert Einstein.

The causes of a problem are often not obvious.  Without knowing the actual cause of the problem, the group can choose the wrong “fix,” wasting valuable time, resources and energy.  Far too often, we give a knee jerk reaction to problems, not taking the time up front to examine it because we are busy.  The truth is putting work up front to identify root causes and design appropriate solutions saves us time in the long run.

The Five Whys is an easy problem solving strategy to learn and apply.  It has applications both for group work and for one on one discussion (when a staff person comes to you for advice, it is a great way to empower them).




Detention or Alarm Clocks?

For example, we were working with a principal that was experiencing a great deal of student tardiness.  His solution was a Saturday detention where students would catch up on work they missed. Now, this wasn’t a terrible idea—students could use support in catching up (whether Saturday detention is the place to do that or not is open to debate).  But, was it addressing the root cause?

We used the Five Whys:

What is the problem:  Students are tardy

1.Why: Because they miss the buses

2.Why: Tardy students are coming from a long way off and if they miss the first bus, they missed the connection

3.Why: Busses run irregularly and this causes student to miss them and the subsequent connections needed

4.Why: Students are not getting up early enough to make the first bus

5.Why: These students had working parents (or non-supportive parents), for the most part, who left before the students did (or didn’t get up themselves), and it was up to the students to get up on their own.

The fifth why brought us to the root cause.  Students were not able to get up on their own and no one was home to wake them. Further exploration brought to light that these students did not own an alarm clock or if they had phones were not using the alarm feature.

Counselors met with students and the school either provided alarm clocks or made sure students knew how to use an alarm clock app on their phones. Students that followed through and were on time received positive reinforcement and recognition (certificates, announcements, privileges, etc.)

In addition to decreasing tardiness, this solution places the responsibility of getting to school on time on the shoulders of the students (should mention these were high school students).  It provides them with preparation for the real world of work.

Let’s Review:

Here is a quick summary of the how to use the Five Whys:

  • Write down the problem
  • Ask Why
  • Answer
  • Keep asking Why
  • Asking Why at least 5 times  will let you drill down to root causes

What do you need? Three things-an issue, people and something to write on (white board or flip charts works).  You are ready!

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