People Power: Performance feedback — Use the ‘5 Whys’

By Robert Milligan

This month we resume our look at feedback related to inadequate performance, starting with questions.

1) How do we find the root cause of inadequate performance?

When we experience inadequate performance or unacceptable behavior, a small (or sometimes loud) voice asks, “What punishment does he or she deserve?” This is the wrong question, because we have not yet determined the reason. The appropriate question is “What is the cause?”

Too often, we treat symptoms, not the real problem. A great, but simple, tool to get beyond the symptoms is the “5 Whys.”

For a problem – for example, low milk production, high SCC, inadequate employee performance – keep asking “Why?” until the answer:

• is definitely not a symptom

• identifies something – usually involving people – that can be changed to likely solve the problem.

The process is called “5 Whys” because the root cause will almost always be identified with five or less repetitions of asking “Why?” (For an example worksheet, e-mail:

2) What is the suggested process for providing redirection feedback?

Our human tendency to blame others when performance or behavior does not meet our expectations is dangerous and potentially damaging in situations where redirection is the appropriate type of feedback. Redirection feedback is appropriate when the unacceptable performance is determined to be caused by the situation – not by the employee’s lack of motivation or focus. Any action that states, hints or even implies blame will be seen as unfair.

Redirection feedback is difficult to deliver, because the employee is already on emotional alert, both because of the failure to meet the expectation, and an anticipation that they will be unfairly blamed.

Four-step process to redirection

Use the following four-step process to deliver redirection feedback:

Step 1: Prepare for the discussion by identifying (from your perspective) the causes for failure to meet expectations, and what must change to meet expectations. The “5 Whys” approach can be used here.

Step 2: Gain the employee’s perspective on the behavior or performance that has not met expectations. Listen and ask questions as appropriate. Together you could complete or expand on what you have done with “5 Whys”.

Step 3: Based on the discussion, modify your ideas for what must change, and discuss those changes with the employee. You must be certain the employee understands:

• the failed expectations was not their fault

• change is required

• you will work with them – training, coaching, supporting – so they can succeed.

Step 4: Work with the employee to establish a realistic plan, goals and timeline to meet and exceed the expectations

Let’s apply this redirection feedback to the following example: The expectation for the dairy feeder is to complete morning feeding of the milking cow groups by 10 a.m. Fulfilling this expectation has been problematic, getting  worse with additional computerized technology that should assist with both accuracy and speed.

Following the four steps above:

Step 1: The supervisor observes the feeder appears to lack the confidence required to do the job quickly and correctly. Additional  requirements to use the new computerized technology seem to confuse him, despite what you thought was sufficient training.

Step 2: Although the feeder seems very worried as you sit down, his engagement in the conversation increases as he sees you are interested in helping him succeed. Together you complete a “5 Whys” worksheet and confirm he is not yet comfortable with the new technology, and also that changes in herd health have created a backup for the feeder.

Step 3: Together, you decide additional training is needed and the feeding sequence must be adjusted. You also realize increased high-quality positive feedback will increase the feeder’s self-confidence.

Step 4: Together you commit to a training and coaching plan and develop a new feeding sequence. You commit to additional positive feedback.

3) What is the suggested process for providing negative feedback?

When redirection feedback does not result in improved performance, you are left to conclude it’s the employee’s motivation, focus, or concentration, and negative feedback is required. The process for negative feedback is similar, but recognizes the situation is not the cause of the performance problem:

Step 1: Prepare for the discussion by identifying (from your perspective) employee behaviors – motivation, focus or energy – that are lacking, and identify potential consequences if  poor performance continues.

Step 2: Gain the employee’s perspective on the behavior not meeting  expectations. Listen and ask appropriate questions. Unless you hear something that causes you to reconsider the need for negative feedback, do not acquiesce to the employees attempts to blame the situation.

Step 3: Based on the discussion, modify  your ideas on what is causing the poor performance. Provide the employee with a choice to: 1) change his or her behavior resulting in satisfactory performance; or 2) incur the consequence you are specifying. The consequence must provide sufficient discomfort to the employee to cause a change in behavior. You must be certain the employee understands:

• the failed expectations cannot be explained by the situation

• change in their behavior is required

• you will work with them so they can succeed.

Step 4: Establish a realistic goal for improvement and a timeline to meet this goal. If the goal is not met, the consequence will be implemented.


, senior consultant with Dairy Strategies LLC, can be reached via phone: 651-647-0495; e-mail:, or website: