Ask questions like a child – the 5 Whys technique

Why is the sky blue? Why do people have nails? Why do we cry when we’re sad? At a certain age, children are asking questions about everything. They never seem to be satisfied with an answer. They are always curious and willing to dig deeper into a subject. Annoying as this behaviour may be, it also reveals our natural talent for organised problemsolving.

Almost every organisation has a bunch of preset rules and processes. This is completely logical and forms an extremely useful way to offer structure and to keep employees from reinventing the wheel. Habits, regulations and methods provide support and make it possible to work really efficiently. The main benefit, however, is also one of the big downsides. The useful structure that ensures efficiency also prevents innovation within the same process.

People, in general, do not like to question certainties. That’s why not a lot of employees like to ask why things are the way they are. Afraid to come across as childish, foolish or just a pain in the ass. Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem: a simple question-asking technique called 5 Whys.

5 Whys

The 5 Whys technique is originally developed to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem or defect. The 5 Whys technique is extremely simple and works as the name suggests by repeating the Why-question 5 times, to get to the root cause of the problem.

The technique was originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda and was used within Toyota during the development of its famous manufacturing methodologies. The tool became very popular because of its simplicity and is now widely used outside Toyota, within Kaizen, Lean Manufacturing, and Six Sigma.

Imagine a restaurant that is struggling with a decrease in sales. Using the 5 Whys technique, the answers could look something like this.

1). Why do we experience a decrease in sales?
There are fewer people visiting our restaurant.

2). Why are there fewer people visiting our restaurant?
Customers are avoiding us because of bad reviews on the internet.

3). Why did we receive bad reviews?
The reviews are all from people who complain about the long time it takes for waiters to take the order. They are all saying that the waiting time takes longer than it used to a few years ago

4). Why does it take longer to take the orders?
Waiters are often not able to see if people are ready to place an order.

5). Why are the waiters not able to see if people want to place an order?
Since the rise of smartphones, people are more interested in their online (social) life than in the menu. Distracted by their mobile phones, customers have often not looked at the menu before they are visited by a waiter. The consequences are that a waiter often has to visit one table several times before he can take the order. As a result, he needs more time than he used to, to visit all the tables. In the end, this is why it takes longer for customers to be served.

Of course, this is an extreme example, but it shows perfectly how the 5 Whys technique works. There is always an underlying reason to be found. As you can imagine, the answers will depend strongly on the person who answers them.
By detecting the real causes of your problem, you are better equipped to come up with a constructive solution instead of only fighting the symptoms.

The restaurant owner from the story above now has the knowledge to develop the right creative ideas to solve his challenge. He could, for example, introduce smartphone-free zones or he could develop a restaurant app that makes it possible for customers to read the menu and place an order via their mobile phones.

The 5 Whys technique is a useful basic tool to explore your problem. In exceptional cases, you’ll need to ask more than 5 why questions to get to the root of the problem. But most of the time 5 questions will suffice.

Obviously, the technique can also be put into practice in an operation to question the usefulness of daily affairs. With the 5 Whys technique, you can give employees an opportunity to question their work process and every aspect of it. This way, you can determine where and how the work can be done more efficiently.

Have you asked yourself recently why you do something the way you do it? I’d love to hear your experiences with ‘childish’ questioning. Please let me know in the comment box below.

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Showing 3 comments
  • Gwen Whitney

    Loved this and believe me I ask questions myself all the time. Such as: why does it take longer to do everyday things? One restaurant in Breckenridge actually put in iPads so people order when they are ready. I know the owner and he actually says it has helped his wait staff. Hope to see you all in a couple weeks!!!

  • Jeroen de Ruijter

    Hi Gwen,
    Thank you for your comment. Asking questions is an important part of solving problems, improving daily operations and searching for opportunities. At HatRabbits we like to provoke by constantly questioning the seemingly obvious. Why do we need to solve this problem? Why are your employees not motivated? Why is not everybody in your company acting like a creative genius? Why does your organization use this particular method? Asking questions is easy to do and it can lead to creative solutions.

  • Hadewych

    Recently I discussed the reaction I usually get to my eternal ‘why’-questions: people often become defensive and angry with me. I suppose this has to do with a difference between your and my ‘why’-questions. You are trying to find the cause of things, I am trying to find the reason for things. So I am asking people why they do something, and they feel they are held to account for their actions or reasoning. It’s a subtle difference but maybe I should try your way more: why do things happen the way they do?

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