This is a story about Jeff Bezos and solving problems.
Because we've all got problems these days. Maybe more than usual. But the most successful leaders among us are exploring new ways to solve them -- and even finding bold opportunities.
And that gives us the chance to examine a simple process that can help you reach the root cause of business problems -- and to use Bezos as our improbable teacher.
The story comes to us from Peter Abilla, an experienced tech entrepreneur I spoke with this week, who worked for Amazon in the early 2000s -- and who shared the story of watching Bezos demonstrate the technique in person.
Back in 2004, Abilla was working in one of Amazon's big fulfillment centers, in Fernley, Nevada. During the fourth quarter of that year, Bezos was visiting Amazon's big operations, and Abilla had the chance to sit in on a meeting with the CEO.
"Most of the managers were there, and Bezos had his entourage of maybe four or five people," Abilla explained. At one point, he recalled, a safety manager decribed an accident in which an employee hurt his finger on a conveyor belt.
Bezos's demeanor completely changed, Abilla remembered.
He went to the whiteboard in the front of the room, and Bezos led everyone through a 5 whys root cause analysis to figure out how the associate had gotten hurt, and what Amazon could do to prevent that kind of accident from happening again.
As it happened, Abilla's previous job before Amazon had been working as an intern at Toyota, which is the company credited with devising the 5 whys root cause analysis to begin with.
It stems from a conviction that even the most complex problems have simple causes -- if you ask enough questions to identify them. So Abilla said he recognized immediately what Bezos was doing.
As Bezos wrote on the whiteboard, the analysis went something like this:
Question 1: Why did the associate get hurt?
Answer: His thumb got caught in the conveyor.
Question 2: Why did his thumb get caught?
Answer: He was chasing after his bag, which was on a running conveyer belt.
Question 3: Why was his bag on a piece of moving machinery?
Answer: Because he placed his bag on the conveyor, but it then turned on by surprise.
Queston 4: Why did he put his bag on the conveyer to begin with?
Answer: Because he was using it as a table.
Question 5: Why was he using it as a table?
Answer: Because he didn't have another place to put his bag.
Abilla wrote later, paraphrasing Bezos from memory:
So, the likely root cause of the associate's damaged thumb is that he simply needed a table, there wasn't one around, so he used a conveyor as a table. ... To eliminate further safety incidences, we need to provide tables at the appropriate stations or provide portable, light tables for the associates to use, or place maintenance bags on the floor.
I should note that while Abilla frames this as an example of Bezos using the 5 whys technique, he really remembers only four questions. But, for purposes of illustration, we can divide the last question into a fourth and fifth one.
As Abilla pointed out to me in our phone interview, the number five isn't really crucial. What matters is Bezos's example of asking enough questions to lead everyone to the root cause.
In a LinkedIn post, Abilla said he found the experience striking for several reasons.
First, that Bezos cared enough about an hourly associate's experience to spend time on the problem, and that he used the exercise to reach a root cause without blaming anyone.
And, he used the whole exerise as a teaching opportunity, leading a roomful of executives to focus on root causes -- and to find them quickly.
"Remember, this was back in 2004," Abilla wrote, adding: "If I were to point at one thing that sets Amazon apart, it's how their people think. And how they think is heavily influenced by Bezos and his example."