The Five Whys:  Turning Failure into Success

Success is not delivering a feature; success is learning how to solve the customer’s problem. – Mark Cook; Former Vice-President, Kodak Gallery

Back about 2010 or so digital photography created a problem.

With consumers rapidly transitioning from traditional film and print based cameras to the new digital world consumers began to demand quick and easy storage of their photographs within the digital environment.  Digital photographs tend to be fairly large files in terms of the amount of memory they consume on a home computer and people tend to want to keep them all, forever.   It wasn’t long after transitioning from the old film and print system to a digital camera that many families began to run out of hard drive space on which to store their precious memories.  Not to mention the fact the PC’s have the nasty habit of crashing from time to time and erasing everything held inside, Little Suzie’s first birthday party included.

Kodak, one of the world’s largest manufactures of both cameras and film saw an opportunity.  They would create a secure, on-line storage hub where customers could upload their photos and store them indefinitely.  Safely removed from the home computer, consumers would never again have to worry about running out of hard drive space or losing everything as a result of a virus or power surge.

The definition of success, above comes from one of the first leaders at Kodak Gallery and it’s a good starting point for what I wish to discuss today.  Sadly, Kodak Gallery no longer exists, it was purchased by Shutterfly in 2012 and all the photographs transferred over to their database.  But that shouldn’t change our perspective on the definition of success.

It’s about solving problems, period.

My bi-line on Twitter (@laurencsheil) says “I solve problems and write books.  Let me show you how to Eliminate Debt, Build Wealth and Leave a Legacy,”

Over the years I’ve found that among the biggest problems many people and small businesses possess is an inability to properly manage debt.  This in turn hampers their ability to effectively build wealth, save for retirement, support a cause or leave any kind of lasting legacy.  Everything I do begins and ends with solving the big problem of debt and all the little problems that feed it.

I just finished reading “The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses” by Eric Ries.  Ries is best known as the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of IMVU, an online gaming metaverse where users create 3D avatars to meet new people, chat, create and play games.  Think of IMVU as a real-time game of Sims.  Since founding IMVU in 2004, Ries has gone on to become a celebrated author and start-up mentor teaching companies of all sizes and industries the rules of his Lean Startup approach.

For me the most compelling section of the book was when Ries described his formula for learning from failure.  We all eventually fail at something, it’s how we pick up the pieces and learn from that failure that separates successful people from perpetual failures.  He calls it the five whys.

The five whys are not a specific set of questions that we need to ask ourselves when assessing failure.  According to Ries, five is simply the number of times you need to ask why in order to get to the root cause of any particular failure.

In my case it could look something like this:

  1. Why didn’t I land the big account? Because the client was worried about committing his funds to this new idea when he might need the money for a capital project within the next year.

  2. Why was the client worried about committing his funds? Because he didn’t understand that my proposal would still leave adequate free cash flow for whatever else he wanted to accomplish?

  3. Why didn’t he understand the free cash flow aspect of what I was proposing? Because I didn’t make that a big part of my proposal to him.

  4. Why didn’t I make that a big part of my proposal to him? Because I felt that once he saw that my product would solve his other problems he would be compelled to ignore some of his less pressing concerns.

  5. Why did I believe that by solving part of his problem the client would ignore his other concerns? Because I was lazy and arrogant and didn’t do all of my homework.

It is possible to get to the root cause of a failure in fewer than five whys but Ries cautions against going too quickly, and I agree.  In a lot of cases five whys might not be enough to get to the root of the problem.  It’s easy to make assumptions, skip over some crucial aspects and miss opportunities for improvement.

The five whys are a great way to get to the root of a problem, but I want to solve problems, not just identify them.   That’s why a properly executed five whys analysis must conclude with at least one (and sometimes multiple) big “So What?”

I was lazy and didn’t do all of my homework.  I will learn to ask more questions and better understand all of my client’s concerns before presenting a partial solution.

Failure is inevitable in life and in business.  Learning from failure and moving on takes a bit of work and a five whys analysis is a great place to start.



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