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Paul Naysmith

Quality Insider

Dr. Deming’s Camping Expedition

In praise of cause and effect and 5 Whys

Published: Monday, August 1, 2011 - 06:00

While playing her role as Maria Kutschera in The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews once sang about her favorite things, among which were geese flying with the moon on their wings, doorbells, and brown paper packages. Remembering these things was how Maria would distract herself when times were bad, a useful technique to deploy when being chased by Nazis across Austria with children in tow.


However, when things aren’t going to plan at work, it’s not kitten whiskers for me; it’s cause and effect diagrams and 5 Whys. You’d think that, with all their talent, Rogers and Hammerstein could have worked those into their tune. (And if you can fit quality tools and techniques into “My Favorite Things,” by all means share your lyrics below; 100 Quality Kudos points for the best submission.)

I don’t really remember the first time I applied or was involved in using these two tools. However, the power of each is the reason I still use them today.

The cause and effect diagram (or “fishbone diagram,” as it’s more popularly known) was the first quality control technique that really grabbed me. Its visual appearance drew me in, and I have to use it at least once a week or else I get withdrawal symptoms. It has always helped to put some order to my many thoughts and ideas.

Readers need to plough through nearly a quarter of Kaoru Ishikawa’s What Is Total Quality Control? The Japanese Way (Prentice Hall Trade, 1991) before they are introduced to the cause and effect diagram and approach. There they will find the author’s musings over “the Ishikawa diagram,” as Joseph M. Juran termed it. I recommend sneaking into a bookshop just to read that section for a giggle. You’ll also find some amusing footnotes from the translator, who didn’t entirely agree with Ishikawa’s opinions.

I love the cause and effect diagram for its simplicity and near-zero cost to create, especially since it offers huge gains in conveying an idea or set direction. For example, I recently ran an experiment with a talented and qualified colleague. Not long out of academia, she was concerned about qualitative outputs, so we designed the experiment to provide both quantitative and qualitative results. Because she didn’t know where to begin to collate the various feedback received, I suggested applying the cause and effect approach.

After the experiment had closed and all the results were received, I asked her to print and cut out each comment. (My office that day looked like the shredder had spewed its contents everywhere.) Using a flipchart, marker pens, and glue, we set out to collate the comments, now in little half-inch strips, into groups. Then each group was added to a branch of the diagram, poorly drawn by me on the flipchart. From this my colleague was able to see how a qualitative output moved to become something nearer to a quantitative form. She enjoyed both creating the diagram and the benefits gained from it, and has since become nearly as boring—er, productive—as I about using them.

A less well-known term for this technique is the “dog-bone diagram.” It was coined when I was mentoring another colleague, who also went on to use it prolifically. At one point he had to demonstrate the cause and effect diagram to a group of operatives at a factory. Eyeing the image dubiously, their sarcastic spokesman concluded, “Aye, it luks mair like a skeleton aff ae dug.” (Translated from Scots: “Yes, it looks more like a skeleton off a dog.”) Let’s just say this operator came from the tougher side of town and could relate more to a dog’s skeleton than a fish’s. Since then I’ve cheekily taught some people the dog-bone diagram, purely for my own amusement.

You’ve got to love the simplicity of the 5 Whys concept. In Toyota Production System (Productivity Press, 1988), Taiichi Ohno says, “To tell the truth, the Toyota Production System has been built on the practice and evolution of this scientific approach.” Wow. So just by asking, “Why?” like an inquisitive toddler, Toyota conquered the world with high-value, low-cost vehicles? If it worked for them, it will surely work for you and me.

In my last column I warned of the dangers of thoughtlessly copying ideas from other companies, but this technique is the exception that proves that rule: Asking why all the time is the most effect route to overcoming problems. The only drawback to it I’ve found is when you’ve needed only three whys to get to the root cause, some determined people still go on to ask two more. Or else they stop at the fifth, even if they haven’t gotten to the root cause. When I travel for work, people remember me as the guy who asks why a lot. I’m thinking about making a T-shirt emblazoned with, “Yes, why is my favorite question, and I’m about to ask it again.” That might help cut out the small talk.

What I like about both techniques is that you don’t need clever software, an abacus, or a calculator to use them. They are easy to teach to others and always create great value as an outcome. I like their simplicity. So Ishikawa and Ohno gave me my favorite quality tools. Not only that, they are also elements in my favorite W. Edwards Deming anecdote:

While on a busy lecture tour of Japan, Deming, along with a couple of good friends, took some time out to visit the beautiful Japanese countryside for a camping trip.

Late in the night, Deming awoke, and above him all the stars in the sky were twinkling down, as if a giant had cast a billion diamonds across the universe. Wide awake and cold, Deming saw that his two companions also were staring up at the sky.

“Iky?” Deming prompted his very good friend and translator, Ishikawa. “Lying here and looking up, what would be your empirical observation?”

“Well, I relate it to the five branches of a cause and effect diagram,” Ishikawa replied. “Man: That is us three here together. Method: We’re out camping. Material: the good food made on the campfire. Machine: Taiichi’s reliable car that got us here. Mother Nature: at her most glorious all around us.”

Deming rolled over and repeated the same question to Ohno.

“Deming,” said Ohno, “with the majesty of the heavens above and the great expanse of the Milky Way, I’m reminded of the greatest question of all: ‘Why?’”

Deming shook his head in disbelief at the two responses from his qualified and learned colleagues. “Blinded by the quality tools and techniques, you have missed the completely obvious,” he fumed. “Someone has stolen our tent!”


About The Author

Paul Naysmith’s picture

Paul Naysmith

Paul Naysmith is the author of Business Management Tips From an Improvement Ninja and Business Management Tips From a Quality Punk. He’s also a Fellow and Chartered Quality Professional with the UK’s Chartered Quality Institute (CQI), and an honorary member of the South African Quality Institute (SAQI). Connect with him at www.paulnaysmith.com, or follow him on twitter @PNaysmith.

Those who have read Paul’s columns might be wondering why they haven’t heard from him in a while. After his stint working in the United States, he moved back to his homeland of Scotland, where he quickly found a new career in the medical-device industry; became a dad to his first child, Florence; and decided to restore a classic car back to its roadworthy glory. With the help of his current employer, he’s also started the first-of-its-kind quality apprenticeship scheme, which he hopes will become a pipeline for future improvement ninjas and quality punks.


clever lyrics

I love your challenge to compose the lyrics to "favorite things". In college, one of my teammates composed the lyrics "if I were a good hitter" to the Fiddler's "if I were a rich man". The ball team loved it.