The 5 Whys technique – don’t be fooled by its apparent simplicity

In an earlier post, I wrote about the 5 Whys technique. A wonderful trick to quickly get a better grasp of your problem situation. While this technique seems childishly simple, it can be fairly tricky to use in practice. Here are a few things to keep in mind when using the 5 Whys technique:

The 5 Whys

The 5 Whys technique is an excellent way of quickly analysing your problem. You ask “Why?” 5 times in a row, and the answers you get will usually give you a much clearer understanding of your problem. The treacherously simple technique allows you to peel off layers of symptoms, allowing you to home in on the root cause of your trouble.

In an earlier post, I described how you use the 5 Whys technique to quickly uncover the root cause of your problem. You can read the full article here.

On paper it’s simple. Unfortunately, in practice, it’s remarkably easy to mess up.

There are at least 4 things to remember when using the 5 Whys technique.

1. Start with a problem

When you use the 5 Whys technique to uncover the root cause of your problem, the obvious first step is describing your problem. However, in all your enthusiasm it’s tempting to describe your desired outcome or focus question instead.

Imagine you are running a moderately successful company with several hundred employees. It has come to your attention that many mistakes are made. The reason: departments don’t have a clue what is going on in other departments (leading to double work and preventable mistakes). In this case, you could start your 5 Whys exercise with different starting points. For instance:

  • People working in different departments don’t communicate clearly with each other (problem statement)
  • Better communication between departments (desired outcome)
  • How might we improve communication between departments? (focus question)

Both a clear goal, a sharp focus question and a precise problem statement are important. However, when it comes to analysing your problem, you’d be wise to start with the problem statement. Asking “Why?” about your focus question or goal might lead you to interesting insights and a better understanding of your motivation (why do you want something), but it usually doesn’t lead to a better grasp of the cause of your problem.

In one of our workshops, we let participants practise with the 5 Whys technique on their own challenges. One of the participants confidently answered several Why-questions. After the 5th ‘Why’ he proudly proclaimed “Because I want to make the world a better place.” Good to know of course, but it brought him no closer to the cause of his initial problem. Accidentally, he had started the 5 Whys exercise by describing what he was looking for (“I want…”) By asking Why-questions about this desire, he and his workshop-partner had analysed this desire, instead of the actual problem that sprouted the desire.

When using the 5 Whys technique to analyse the root cause of your problem, start with a clear problem statement. Leave your desired outcome and focus question for later.

Keep it simple. Describe the problem in one clear sentence.

2. Make sure you know the details

To properly answer the ‘simple’ Why-questions, you need to know exactly what’s going on. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself unable to ask a simple Why-question pretty early in the process.

If you realise you don’t know enough about the situation to answer (one of) the Why-questions confidently, take appropriate action.

The obvious thing to do is visiting the place where your problem occurs. Observe the situation to learn what’s happening. Figure out what’s going on and why.

Include others
What you can also do, is including others who know more about (a part of) the situation than you do. It’s no shame to admit you don’t know everything yourself. Be comfortable bringing in some people who are ‘in the field’ on a daily basis. They probably want to solve this thing as much as you do.

3. Choose your answers carefully

The tricky thing about questions is that even simple ones often have more than one possible answer. You can answer most Why-questions with multiple answers. They can all be true, but are usually not all equally useful. There are two ways to handle these different ‘paths’.

Either continue the process on each and every answer you get. However, this will take some time, as the 5 Whys diagram will quickly branch out to be a massive tree.

What you can also do (when you don’t have the time to pursue every possible lead) is pick the answer you think will lead you to the most interesting insights. Ask yourself all the time: “Does this answer bring me closer to the core of my problem?” Sometimes it will be obvious that an answer leads to a dead end.

If you find yourself stuck at some point in the process, and it’s not because you don’t have the required knowledge, go back a few steps and try again with a different answer.

4. Choose your questions carefully

That a Why-question can be answered in many different ways will probably not surprise you. Funnily enough, there are also many ways to ask a Why-question. Based on the same answer, you can focus your Why-question on different aspects of the answer.

Take the following example.

A possible answer to a Why-question could be: “Because manager X does not answer his email on Mondays.

Followup questions to this answer could be:

  • Why doesn’t he answer his emails on Mondays?
  • Why is it important for you to get an answer on Monday?
  • Why do you send this request on Mondays?

Clearly, the question you choose determines the direction the conversation is moving. Just like answers, some questions will bring you closer to the core of the problem, while others lead you astray.

How the wrong question can disrupt the 5 Whys exercise
If we look at the example I described in my previous article, it becomes evident how a different question can disrupt an otherwise helpful 5 Whys exercise:

Why is the monument deteriorating?
Answer: Because it is cleaned intensively (with high-powered sprayers) every two weeks.

Why is the building cleaned so intensely every two weeks?
Answer: Because every two weeks it’s covered in bird poo

Why are there so many birds around the monument?
Answer: Because there is a lot of food for the birds (many spiders live in the monument)

Why are there so many spiders in the monument?
Answer: They are feeding on the many insects that fly around the monument

Why are there so many insects flying around the monument?
The insects are attracted to the spotlights that are turned on in the evening to illuminate the monument at night.

Imagine what happens if after the second answer ‘Because every two weeks it’s covered in bird poo’ a different question is asked…

Instead of ‘Why are there so many birds around the monument?’ the questioner could also have asked one of the following questions:

  • Why is it covered in bird poo?
  • Why are there so many birds pooing there?
  • Why do birds poo?

The first question will merely add another step to the exercise (“Because there are many birds in an around the monument” is inserted, which can be followed by the question “Why are there so many birds in and around the monument?“). No biggie.

The second will probably lead to a similar detour.

The third possible question, however, will lead to a whole new path of inquiry. Undoubtedly, the last question might be very interesting for aspiring biologists, but it won’t bring you any closer to the root cause of your problem.

So, just like the person who answers, the person who asks the questions should constantly ask him- or herself “Does this bring us closer to the core of the problem?

To summarise:
When using the 5 Whys technique,
– Start with a problem statement
– Make sure you know enough details to confidently answer the questions
– When you answer, ask yourself “Does this question bring me closer to the core of my problem?”
– When you ask the question, ask yourself “Does this answer bring me closer to the core of my problem?”

Keeping these things in mind will help you get the most out of the 5 Whys method.


Flickr Creative Commons Image via Ksayer1.

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