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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Nov 25, 2018


As leaders, there’s always a risk of blaming people rather than processes. This week we look at a technique that helps us to avoid playing the blame game.



Welcome to episode twenty of the Leadership Today podcast. Each week we provide practical advice to address some of today’s biggest leadership challenges. In this episode we’re looking at ways to avoid playing the blame game.

As leaders, there’s always a risk of blaming people rather than processes. Something goes wrong and the first thing we want to identify is who is to blame. After all, we’re responsible for the processes, so there’s a built-in desire to protect ourselves by blaming some incompetent or malicious individual rather than our wonderfully crafted systems. Blaming people is a pretty natural way of defending ourselves and maintaining our self esteem. However, it’s not a great way of building trust, getting to the root cause of problems or improving performance. If a leader is constantly blaming their people, you have to wonder - who hired these people, and who has been managing their performance? It’s the same leader who’s now playing the blame game.

When leaders play the blame game, it leads to fear, and fear leads to cover ups, and cover ups lead to increased risk. Who would raise a concern when they know there’s a risk of being blamed and all the negative consequences that come with that? The team quickly learn the importance of sweeping things under the carpet. And that seems fine in the short term, until the issues mount up and are impossible to ignore.

So, as leaders, it can be helpful to have a technique that allows us to get to the root cause of problems without automatically blaming people.

One simple tool is called 5 whys, originally pioneered by Sakichi Toyoda as part of the Toyota Production System. While it was initially conceived as an engineering method, it works equally well on any sort of problem you’re likely to encounter in the workplace. As a result, it has been incorporated into a broad range of continuous improvement methodologies.

To use the 5 whys approach, you start with the problem, then look for the preceding cause of the problem by asking ‘why’ - why did the problem occur. The idea being that after you’ve worked backwards by asking ‘why’ five times, you should be at or pretty close to the root cause of the problem. One of the principles is that you can’t have human error as the root cause - instead, you need to focus on the process, not the people. 5 whys is fact driven and logical - it’s about evidence rather than opinions. This takes a lot of the heat out of the approach.

Let’s look at an example to bring the 5 whys approach to life. You hang up the phone from a disgruntled customer. They’ve just visited your local store to find their favourite item was out of stock. To make things worse, they had actually called the store the day before to confirm the item would be in stock, and were told new stock was arriving overnight and would be there the next day. Now they’re going to take their business elsewhere. Your natural inclination is to ring the store manager and tell them off for letting the customer down by not keeping enough stock and overpromising to the customer - a classic blame game response. Instead you call the store manager and try to figure out the root cause.

  1. Why was the store out of stock? Because the scheduled order hadn’t arrived.
  2. Why did the scheduled order not arrive? Because the delivery truck broke down on the way to the store.
  3. Why did the delivery truck break down? Because of a broken fan belt.
  4. Why did the fan belt break? Because the truck hadn’t been serviced.
  5. Why hadn’t the truck been scheduled? Because there wasn’t a schedule in place for truck servicing.


The lack of a schedule for servicing our fleet of trucks was the root cause for the stock outage.

It turned out the root cause didn’t have anything to do with the store manager - the problem was in an entirely different part of the organisation. The risk now is that we try to track down who is responsible for truck servicing schedules and blame them. Instead, a much more constructive approach is to look at this as a shared problem, and something that can be avoided in the future through continuous improvement. In fact, fixing the truck servicing might help to avoid a whole range of other problems in the future - ones that wouldn’t have been avoided if we had just berated the store manager.

Now, 5 whys as a technique is not perfect. For example, it tends to uncover one root cause, when there may be several. And there’s nothing magical about 5 whys - it might only take 3 whys, or perhaps 10 whys to get to the root cause. And sometimes the problem is a person. But the principle of looking at processes and systems first before blaming people is one that any leader can bring to their approach.