The Five Whys, the discomfort of root cause analysis and the discipline of incident response

Here is a non-law post to pass on some ideas about root cause analysis, The Five Whys, and incident response.

This is inspired by having finished reading The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. It’s a good book end-to-end, but Ries’ chapter on adaptive organizations and The Five Whys was most interesting to me – inspiring even!

The Five Whys is a well-known analytical tool that supports root cause analysis. Taichii Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System, described it as “the basis of Toyota’s scientific approach.” By asking why a problem has occurred five times – therefore probing five causes deep – Ohno says, “the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear.” Pushing to deeper causes of a failure is plainly important; if only the surface causes of a failure are addressed, the failure is near certain to recur.

Reis, in a book geared to startups, explains how to use The Five Whys as an “automatic speed regulator” in businesses that face failures in driving rapidly to market. The outcome of The Five Whys process, according to Ries, is to make a “proportional” investment in corrections at each five layers of the causal analysis – proportional in relation to to the significance of the problem.

Of course, root cause analysis is part of security incident response. The National Institute of Standards and Technology suggests that taking steps to prevent recurrences is both part of eradication and recovery and the post-incident phase. My own experience is that root cause analysis in incident response is often done poorly – with remedial measures almost always targeted at surface level causes. What I did not understand until reading Ries, is that conducting the kind of good root cause analysis associated with The Five Whys is HARD.

Ries explains that conducting root cause analysis without a strong culture of mutual trust can devolve into The Five Blames. He gives some good tips on how to implement The Five Whys despite this challenge: establishing norms around accepting the first mistake, starting with less than the full analytical process and using a “master” from the executive ranks to sponsor root cause analysis.

From my perspective, I’ll now expect a little less insight out of clients who are in the heat of crises. It may be okay to go a couple levels deep while an incident is still live and while some process owners are not even apprised of the incident – just deep enough to find some meaningful resolutions to communicate to regulators and other stakeholders. It may be okay to tell these stakeholders “we will [also] look into our processes and make appropriate improvements to prevent a recurrence” – text frequently proposed by clients for notification letters and reports.

What clients should do, however is commit to conducting good root cause analysis as part of the post-incident phase:

*Write The Five Whys into your incident response policy.

*Stipulate that a meeting will be held.

*Stipulate that everyone with a share of the problem will be invited.

*Commit to making a proportional investment to address each identified cause.

Ries would lead us to believe that this will be both unenjoyable yet invaluable – good reason to use your incident response policy to help it become part of your organization’s discipline.