Systems Thinking: Using the 5 Whys

By Linda Fisher Thornton

In my Applied Ethics Class last fall, I introduced my students to the Five Whys. This is a simple and valuable tool for getting to the root cause of problems. We may think we understand why something happened but when we “fix” whatever we think is the sole cause we don’t always get the intended result. The reason for that is that problems tend to have multiple causes. They happen in the context of multiple processes. Singling out one “cause” is rarely sufficient for understanding what really happened.

I’m sharing these resources to help you improve your thinking. Even if you are already familiar with the 5 Whys, you will find the video on the multiple causes of the sinking of the Titanic compelling.

Using the 5 Whys

First, review the Key Concepts of Systems Thinking and the Levels of Systems Thinking Maturity at Thwink.org. 

Second, watch this MindTools video on the 5 Whys and read the article which explains the origin of the method.

Third, learn about root cause analysis at Tableau.com, paying particular attention to the example of the 5 Whys.

Fourth, watch this Think Reliability video on How to Conduct a 5-Why. (Exploring Why the Titanic Sank)

How To Use This Technique

The 5 Whys is relevant in any setting where you need to fully understand why something happened. Use it when people come to you for help with problems. Share it with your project team. Use it to begin to unravel society’s biggest problems and identify solutions. Using the 5 Whys reveals a much more complex landscape than we can see with a “cause and effect” mentality.

Thwink.org shares Einstein’s insight on the kind of thinking we need: “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels” — Albert Einstein. Using techniques like the 5 Whys will help us adapt in a world of increasing complexity and change. As our problems increase in complexity, so must our thinking.

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Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership®

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Ethical Thinking is Intentional, Thoughtful and Applied

By Linda Fisher Thornton

One of the things we know about ethical decision-making is that we need to take the time to do it. But if we fill up every minute of the day with meetings, deadlines, emails and projects, when will we have time to think about the impact of our choices? 

How will we consider our decisions in terms of ethical values if we don’t take time to consider our decisions at all?

Rushing to a decision in response to perceived external pressures is a good way to make an ethical mistake. The thinking that leads to ethical choices is intentional, thoughtful and applied.

Intentional and Thoughtful

Some people tend to trust their “gut” and make very quick decisions that turn into highly visible ethical failures. Listening to our “gut” has a place in ethical decision-making but it has to be balanced with a more intentional way of thinking about our choices. If we instantly assess the situation based on our very human implicit biases (we all have them), we are not likely to make a fair and ethical choice.

We have to intentionally overcome those flaws in our thinking to make moral choices. Once we decide to use ethical thinking, we need to take the time to dig into grey areas and explore the potential long-term ethical impact of the different paths we could take. 

Applied

How do we tap into our “ethical brain?” According to Professor Joshua Greene, there is no specific place in our brains that is “moral.” He points out in The Moral Brain: A Multidisciplinary Perspective that “It’s now clear that the ‘moral brain’ is, more or less, the whole brain, applying its computational powers to problems that we, on nonneuroscientific grounds, identify as ‘moral.'”

As we practice resolving dilemmas we find ethics to be less a goal than a pathway, less a destination than a trip, less an inoculation than a process.   — Rushworth Kidder

There is no automatic setting or magic technique for ethical thinking. It is a thoughtful process. We have to apply ourselves – to  understand issues, explore their ethical implications, and choose a moral path. Watch for leaders and organizations who are embracing this process and reaping the benefits through improved ethical brand value. 

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Ethical Thinking Requires Dialogue

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Ethical leadership requires us to understand the context and embrace the natural complexity of issues. One of the pieces that we can’t be successful without is learning from the widely varying perspectives of others.

“Kohlberg believed, as did Piaget, that most moral development occurs through social interaction.”

Robert N. Barger, Ph.D., University of Notre Dame, A SUMMARY OF LAWRENCE KOHLBERG’S STAGES OF MORAL DEVELOPMENT

Thinking in a vacuum without considering the needs of others we may forget important elements of the decision-making process. Have you heard the expression “There’s no ‘I’ in team?” Maybe there’s also (metaphorically) no ‘I’ in ethical thinking when we need to understand complex issues.

In highly complex situations we need to listen to and learn from each other to get ethics right.

One person will be the most knowledgeable about laws governing our work, another will understand the trends and consumer expectations, yet another will ask hard questions to make sure we consider our constituents’ needs. Dealing with particularly complex issues demands an inclusive thinking process. Without any one of these important voices we may lose our way.

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