Today I want to talk about literature searches. Not literature searches that inform research questions and research projects—but using literature searches to solve administrative problems and inform quality/process improvement projects within the office. You might say a literature search is a literature search – Google answers my question no matter what type of question I ask. However, the function and purpose of a professional literature search differs greatly from a traditional research question, and our approach to the search must equally change.

First, Define Your Question with the 5-Whys

Just as you would define a research question, you need to hone your clearly-stated professional question into its various components and concepts. The best way to do this is to ask yourself “why” five times to discover the root cause of your issue. The 5-whys is a common QI method of root cause analysis to drill down from higher-level symptoms to the underlying root cause(s) of a problem. 

Allow me to use a classic example in quality improvement: Donald Messersmith’s 1993 Lincoln Memorial Lighting and Midge Study:

  • Problem: One of the monuments in Washington D.C. is deteriorating.
    • Why #1 – Why is the monument deteriorating?
  • Because harsh chemicals are frequently used to clean the monument.
    • Why #2 – Why are harsh chemicals needed?
  • To clean off the large number of bird droppings on the monument.
    • Why #3 – Why are there a large number of bird droppings on the monument?
  • Because the large population of spiders in and around the monument are a food source to the local birds
    • Why #4 – Why is there a large population of spiders in and around the monument?
  • Because vast swarms of insects, on which the spiders feed, are drawn to the monument at dusk.
    • Why #5 – Why are swarms of insects drawn to the monument at dusk?
  • Because the lighting of the monument in the evening attracts the local insects.
    • Solution: Change how the monument is illuminated in the evening to prevent attraction of swarming insects.

In this example, you may have had any one of 5 different research questions. And, you may have searched the literature for any number of things — the use of chemicals to clean public monuments, the proclivity of birds to gather around public monuments, the population of local spiders and their proclivity to gather in and around public monuments, why insects swarm around monuments at dusk, and finally, how outdoor lighting attracts swarms of local insects. The use of the 5-whys root cause analysis, allows you to hone your question down to the root problem, and consequently, refines your literature search as you begin to formulate a solution.

Search Terms

Consider all the search terms for each concept (this is called term harvesting) and begin to put them together in a logical formation. Not all problems are as clear-cut or extreme as Messersmith’s National Monument example. Your problem may require a literature search on all 5-Why reasons, or just on the very last solution. But to use this example, your final search may contain: how different monuments are lit around the world, lighting practices and legislation surrounding national monuments, local insect populations and movement patterns, how and why local insects are attracted to light, and different types of lighting options.

Choosing What to Read

Do not read everything word for word. Skim abstracts, read the introduction, skim the methods, and read the discussion. Find those articles that best-fit and are most suited to your particular problem. In most cases, you don’t need a full history of migration patterns of local insects on your continent – you need only what is relevant to you and your problem. That being said, if you want to publish your findings—there is a growing demand for QI publications and in some cases you might want to do a full background search.

Using Literature to Formulate a Solution

Once you have clearly defined your problem, and you have studied the literature on how others have solved this problem in the past, you can begin to formulate a plan of attack. If a piece of literature is extremely relevant and recent, you may even want to contact the author for additional information. You can often contact them by searching for their institutional email or through LinkedIn. Remember, if you need to present a formal proposal to leadership to solve your problem, use the literature citations to back up your plan of attack!

Best of luck! You can do it!