The 5 Whys is a simple yet powerful problem-solving tool that encourages users to ask “why” repeatedly to identify the root cause of a problem. This technique aims to sidestep surface-level symptoms and delve deeper into the underlying issues behind a problem. Developed by Sakichi Toyoda, the method was first implemented in Toyota’s manufacturing process but is now used widely in business.

How Does it Work?

It is as simple as following these steps:

  1. Identify the problem or issue you are looking to solve.
  2. Ask “why” it occurred. This should be a simple, open-ended question. Remember you are just looking for one piece of information right now. Also, try and avoid making questions accusatory as little benefit will come of this.
  3. Take the answer to the first “why” and ask “why” again. Repeat the process, using the answer to each previous question as the basis for the next question.
  4. Ask “why” five times, or until you have identified the root cause of the problem. In practice, it is probably best not to get fixated on the number 5 and yet the invitation is not to be satisfied until you are reasonably sure you have reached the root cause.
  5. Once you have, develop and implement a solution.

Remember, like any method, the 5 Whys is not a one-size-fits-all solution and may not be effective for all problems. Additionally, the effectiveness of the method depends on the quality of the questions asked and the ability to accurately identify the root cause. However, when used effectively, the 5 Whys method can be a powerful tool for problem-solving and ongoing improvement.

Real Life Example

  1. Why are customers not converting? – Because they can’t really see the benefits.
  2. Why can’t they see the benefits? – Possibly because our pitch is too vague.
  3. Why might the pitch be too vague? – Because we are not 100% clear on the value we offer.
  4. Why are we not clear on the value we offer? – Because we have not worked out how to tell clients.
  5. Why have you not worked out how to tell clients? Possible because we know the service inside out, have experienced it ourselves and really see the benefits but are explaining it to people who have not, and words can only express so much. Conclusion – we need potential clients to experience it rather than understand it.

Questions in the Image:

  • Why are customers not converting?
  • Why, Why, Why, Why…

Want to Read More Around this Topic?

The Five Whys for Start-Ups by Eric Ries (link to HBR). I have failed to find a quality book that explores this method. Next best is this interesting article by the author of the Lean Start-up that is specifically focused on using the 5 Whys method in the context of a start-up. Interesting reading for anyone looking to get to grips with how it can work in different contexts.

Nurturing Curiosity – Daily Practice: This is part of the Nurturing Curiosity series of tools, insights and questions designed to help nurture curiosity as part of our daily practice. In point of fact, every interaction we have is an opportunity to question what we are observing and how we and others are seeing the world. Also remember that questions come in many forms throughout our day – a random offer of a chocolate treat might be an opportunity to ask How can I offer a moment of kindness to someone?

What Thoughts Would You Like to Share? My name is Tom O’Leary, and I envision a world in which curiosity shapes leadership. In this world, leaders aren’t boxed in by traditional thinking or established playbooks. They are open to fresh ideas and diverse perspectives, fostering a culture of exploration and learning. My mission is to shift leadership focus from authority, over-measurement and control to curiosity, learning and innovation, empowering leaders to prioritise the essential. My journey, lived in a number of countries and through various languages, has always been driven by a profound sense of curiosity. In fact, life has taught me that possibility lies not so much in seeking answers but in learning to ask better questions – the ones that help prioritise what is truly essential. I welcome your thoughts, feedback, or personal experiences related to these questions or any insights they may have sparked.