Are you guilty of fixing the symptom rather than the disease?

A friend’s young daughter had very bad eczema. For six years she was subjected to a daily smothering of cream, was not allowed to go swimming and had to wear long sleeves even in the height of summer.

Then they discovered she was allergic to the family dog.

The dog was dispatched to a relative, the rash disappeared and the little girl went swimming. It’s just a shame that it took six years for the medical profession to focus on treating the problem (why the eczema was occurring) rather than the symptom (the rash).

This happens in business too. The symptom is easy to see and relatively easy to treat. Got an unproductive employee – sack them! Got slow paying debtors – chase them!

But what about looking for the problem behind the symptom? Although it’s often hard to identify the problem, and a bigger deal to fix, taking the time to treat the problem rather than the symptom is always longer-lasting and more effective.

But how do you find the problem behind the symptom?

Toyota made famous a simple tool called the “five whys” to find a problem. And it’s a neat tool to try. You simply ask “why” a symptom is occurring five times to get behind the real cause of a problem. Take this example:

There is a puddle of oil on the floor in the factory.


“Because the machine leaked.”


“Because it has a broken gasket.”


“Because we bought gaskets made of cheap material.”


“Because they were cheaper.”

“Why did we buy cheaper?”

“Because the purchasing team are rewarded and evaluated on short-term cost savings rather than long-term performance.”

So keep mopping the floor or change the reward structure in purchasing?

Here’s another example, a small business story.

Jane runs a small chain of hairdressers and she was having problems with the staff in her Delta salon. While the staff in the other salons were generally enthusiastic and responsive to praise and small rewards, the staff in Delta salon were emotionally flat.

Jane tried increasing the rewards and the praise but to no avail. She dreaded her visits to Delta salon and, feeling drained by the issue, had started a process to sell the salon.

As a last resort Jane tried the “five whys” on the staff situation.

Taking the employees aside, one at a time, she asked them why they seemed to be unenthusiastic about the salon. A couple of them said that they weren’t unenthusiastic at all, they just didn’t want to show their enthusiasm because one of the stylists, Brenda, was mean to them if they were.

Brenda happened to be the salon’s top stylist, a customer favourite and probably the most enthusiastic team member! It seemed bizarre. Jane was inclined to sack Brenda but couldn’t shake off the feeling that there was something else going on.

So Jane set about asking four more “whys”. Starting with ” why” Brenda was being a bully. It turned out – long story short – that Brenda had serious money problems and she was bullying the other stylists to position herself as number one and get a bigger piece of the reward pie. Asking “why” Brenda had money problems it turned out that she had got into trouble gambling. Why the gambling? She’d started doing it when her Dad was terminally ill.

Once Jane had uncovered the whole story she decided not to sell the salon and not to sack Brenda. Instead she, very graciously, made a loan to Brenda to cover her debts.

That was a couple of years ago and Delta salon is now the best performer in Jane’s chain. Isn’t that a good reason to try the “Five Whys” in your business?

Julia Bickerstaff’s expertise is in helping businesses grow profitably. She runs two businesses:Butterfly Coaching, a small advisory firm with a unique approach to assisting SMEs with profitable growth; and The Business Bakery, which helps kitchen table tycoons build their best businesses. Julia is the author of “How to Bake a Business”  and was previously a partner at Deloitte. She is a chartered accountant and has a degree in economics from The London School of Economics (London University).


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