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The 5 Whys

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“The basis of Toyota’s scientific approach is to ask why five times whenever we find a problem. By repeating why five times, the nature of the problem, as well as its solution, becomes clear.” Taiichi Ohno makes this statement in his book Toyota Production Systems: Beyond Large-Scale Production where he describes the rise of Toyota’s powerhouse, manufacturing methodologies in the 1950s. Using the 5 Whys process determined to be critical in drilling down to the root cause of multiple problems and defining effective solutions quickly.

How It Works

The goal of asking why five times narrows the focus of a problem to a single element of that problem so a specific countermeasure, or solution, can be drawn.

It works when you:

  1. Form a Team

Gather people with different viewpoints. This can be an assembly of colleagues from different departments or family members from ages, genders, etc. As long as the group is diverse and able to contribute to the discussion with unique points of view.

  1. Define the Problem

Openly lay out the issue and name the specific problem. Make sure the scope is narrow enough so the problem can be stated in one, concise sentence.

When identified, assign a facilitator and a scribe (someone that will do all of the writing) and write the problem on a board in the form of a ‘why’ question.

  1. Answer Your First Why

Now that you’ve written your question in the form of a ‘why’ question, answer your first why. For example, your question might be, “Why do we run behind so frequently?” Now answer your question as a group using critical thinking and serious thought. Each response should be based on facts, real data, and evidence, not emotions or conjecture.

  1. Ask Why Four More Times

As your group continues to discuss, make sure to narrow down your ‘why’ questions in a succession to get to the root cause of the problem.

Why? Reason
Why? Reason
Why? Reason
Why? Reason
Why? Reason


TIP: As you gather reasons for your ‘why’ responses, the group may find evidence of multiple causes. This is when there may be multiple lanes of succession versus a single lane of answers. We call this “splitting.” Document each reason as a sub- section to respond to later. Don’t let splitting derail the original conversation.

Why? Reason 1 > Reason 2
Why? Reason 1 > Reason 2
Why? Reason 1 > Reason 2
Why? Reason 1 > Reason 2
Why? Reason 1 > Reason 2
  1. Know When to Stop

Asking five ‘whys’ in succession is just a rule of thumb. There are some problems that require more dissection before a root cause is identified. Sometimes the root cause is so obvious it stands out before the fifth ‘why’ is answered. You’ll know when it’s time to stop when the team is struggling to provide evidence-based, responses or all agree the final solution will change the problem significantly.

  1. Take Action

Each group member is assigned a corrective action to support the final solution. No problem is one person’s responsibly to fix. Everyone plays a role so make sure each person walks away with clear instructions on how to proceed.

  1. Trust and Validate

Trust each person is execute their portion of the plan. Schedule a time to re-group and review how things are going. This is a great way to validate each responsible member is following through as assigned and the solution is working as desired.

Words of Caution

  1. Results are not repeatable because different people answering the 5 Whys will come up with different results.
  2. Solutions are limited to the knowledge cap of the people answering the 5 Whys.
  3. There can be a lack of leader support and buy-in even after solutions are created.
  4. Individual paralysis due to personal roadblocks, such as fears, assumptions, limiting beliefs, can skew the solution.
  5. The right solution can go against the self-interest of the people answering the 5 Whys.

5 Whys in Business Examples

Example #1 Problem – We run behind a lot.

Why do we run behind so frequently? Patients are at the front completing paperwork at the time they are to go back.

Why are patients at the front completing paperwork at the time they are to go back? They aren’t arriving early enough before their appointment to complete their paperwork on time.

Why aren’t they arriving early enough before their appointment to complete their paperwork on time? The front desk is telling them their appointment time only and asking if they can come in a few minutes early.

Why is the front desk telling patients to arrive only at their appointment time? Habit and that’s how it’s always been done

Why can’t we change our scripting around setting appointment times? There is no reason

Countermeasure- Change scripting around appointment times to include an Arrival Time 10 minutes before the Appt time so patients are completed with their paperwork.

Example #2 Problem – Team communication sucks! Why does team communication suck? Reason 1: The back department doesn’t know what the front department is doing, and vice versa. Reason 2: No one has time to stop and ask questions.

Why (Reason 1) do departments not know what others are doing? Reason 1: There’s never been thorough training with the entire team on the big-picture.

Why hasn’t there been thorough training with the entire team on the big-picture? Reason 1: Leadership assumes everyone knows their jobs and how to do it based off of their job titles; Reason 2: Staff are trained by other members with the similar title but never introduced to what other’s role is within a process; Reason 3: There are no documented process or systems.

Why (Reason 3) are there no documented process or systems? Reason 1: Leadership/owners don’t take the time to create them.

Why (Reason 1) don’t leadership/owners take the time to create them? Reason 1: They are overwhelmed at the thought of undertaking such a large task.

Countermeasure- Find processes and systems for purchase and use as a temporary means of communication amongst departments while editing and tailoring each document to the team’s, unique needs.

5 Whys in Life Examples

Example #1 Problem – I feel stuck in this relationship.

Why do I feel stuck in this relationship? My needs aren’t being met. Why aren’t my needs being met? I don’t express them often or clearly enough for them to be heard. Why don’t I express them often or clearly enough to be heard? I’m afraid of confrontation. Why am I afraid of confrontation? I get anxious and shut down and stop expressing myself. Why do I get anxious and shut down and stop expressing myself? Because I don’t have confidence in my communication skills. Countermeasure- Take a course in learning how to communication my needs clearly, especially during confrontation.

Example #2 Problem – My self-confidence is very low.

Why is my self-confidence so low? Reason 1: I have poor body image; Reason 2: My internal dialogue is very negative

Why (Reason 2) is my internal dialogue negative? I’m very hard on myself

Why am I so hard on myself? Reason 1: I feel guilty when I don’t perform at high levels; Reason 2: I don’t want to disappoint my family.

Why (Reason 2) am I so fearful of disappointing my family? Reason 1: They supported me in getting to where I am and I don’t want all of our efforts to be wasted; Reason 2: I’m the primary bread-winner and they count on me.

Why (Reason 2) do I think our efforts would be wasted? This is an irrational thought as there is no supporting evidence for this.

Countermeasure – Sit down with my family and share my fears about disappointing them.

Key Takeaways

Defining a problem starts with the 5 why's. This works when we:
1. Form a team.
2. Define the problem.
3. Answer you first why.
4. Ask "Why" four more times.
5. Know when to stop.
6. Take action.
7. Trust and validate.

Lastly we offer two examples of real life scenarios.

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