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The 5 Whys

The Question You Need to Ask Yourself More Often

"Why?" It's a simple question that we all learned by the age of 2. Yet it may be more useful than you think. Matthew E. May explains the 5 Whys and how you can use it to get to the root of your problem, whether at work or at home.

Recently I had a conversation with a friend who was upset about some directional shifts and looming job shuffles swirling around his company. As I listened to the lament, I recognized the fact that he was focusing on the symptoms of the issue. All of his reactions and proposed courses of action in response to the unsettling circumstances didn't address what I could tell was something deeper.

My friend had lost the raison d'etre for his work. The connection to a higher purpose, or a deeper cause, simply wasn't there any longer. The solution, according to my friend, was to immediately leave. While in the end, it may play out to be the right thing to do, the problem-solving coach gene in me couldn't resist butting in.

"Have you ever done a 5 Whys on your work?" I asked.

"What do you mean?" came the reply.

I explained how the 5 Whys is a simple but powerful problem-solving technique that allows you to dip below the surface level of a problem to uncover and identify the root cause of the issue. It's something I learned and mastered at Toyota and have been teaching ever since.

It's simple enough to employ. You begin with a statement of the problem, then ask a series of childlike whys to get to the bottom of the issue. Let's say your son or daughter comes home with a D in math on their report card. For most parents, that's a clearly defined problem. The 5 Whys goes something like this:

"Why did you get a D in math?" After much "I don't know"-ing and shoulder shrugging:

"Because I didn't do all my homework assignments."

Note that if you stop right there, the solution goes something like, "Get in your room and do your homework — no TV, no computer, no iPhone, no iPad . . . In fact, no dinner until you're done." Incomplete homework is mostly likely not the real issue, though. So you need to press on.

"Why didn't you do your homework?"

"I hate math." (Ugly face, like they just swallowed Drano.)

"Why do you hate math so much?"

"Because I suck at it." (Getting perturbed.)

"Why do you think you suck at it?"

"I don't just don't get it." (Throwing hands in the air. Sometimes accompanied by back talk: "OK? Are you happy now? I said it. I'm stupid.")

Aha. Now the solution looks quite different: "Get in your room and understand it." (Just kidding!) Seriously, your child needs extra help with math. Maybe that's you. Maybe it's a special school program. Maybe it's a tutor. The possibilities emerge once the root cause is discovered.

Now there are a few things to note about this. First of all, it didn't take five whys, it took four. There is no magic around the number five, contrary to popular belief. It's a heuristic, a guideline, not an algorithm. With a well-framed problem, it may only take a couple why questions. If, however, you go beyond five, it's a good bet you need to rescope your initial problem statement, because it's not specific enough.

Also, the 5 Whys is not a horizontal inquiry. In other words, you're not asking, "Why else?" time after time. Rather, you're feeding off the previous answer to a why question. It's a vertical dive. And as such, it's much like drilling for oil: sometimes you get it, sometimes you don't. You may be solving the wrong problem, or your whys don't hang together logically. Sometimes they become circular.

If, say, you had asked one more why, à la, "Why didn't you ask for help?" the response may have just taken you back up the chain — your child hated math so much, the thought of spending more time on it was distasteful. (Or perhaps another response to the same fifth why might have opened a whole other can of worms: "I was afraid to ask for help.") So there's a bit of an art and skill (which simply comes from regular practice) to deploying the right set of whys?

One trick — a test, really — is to make sure all your answers to the whys make as much logical sense going up as they seem to going down. In other words, in the homework case, starting at the bottom and working your way up: your child doesn't understand math, so they perform poorly at it, which results in them not liking it. And because they don't like it, they avoid doing their homework, which results in a D on their report card.

Makes sense down and up.

I'm constantly amazed at how few people still aren't aware of the technique, despite its appearance in many domains. The renowned product design firm IDEO used it in interviewing dieting women around the country to understand their attitudes and behaviors around weigh loss. Dozens of books (including one of my own) cover it.

Back to my friend. I told him the story of how a colleague of mine at Toyota years ago used the 5 Whys to create his own first job. His manager in Japan told him, after his initial training: "Go dig your own job."

So he set off in search of a problem to solve, which he did, discovering that a contentious relationship existed between Toyota and General Motors with respect to the supply of parts to joint Toyota/GM operations in the US (this was back in the early 1990s).

Why the bad relationship? Because there was no formal supply contract. Why was there no contract? Because Toyota and GM couldn't agree to terms, so there was no basis for a contract. Why couldn't they agree? Because there were serious misunderstandings regarding Toyota policies, such as the parts' pricing. Why the misunderstanding? Because Toyota had never really explained the rationale behind their policies regarding the supply of parts, and would not negotiate the parts' pricing, much to the consternation of GM. Why no negotiation? By talking to both parties using his bilingual skill, my colleague quickly came to the conclusion that the root of the problem was to be found in the general lack of communication between Toyota and GM. Communication was not occurring because neither party knew how to explain their position — they simply did not speak the other's language.

I could see my friend's mental wheels spinning. I suggested he might use the 5 Whys to find his own personal and professional "root cause" in life. I suggested he should find some quiet time for reflection and gave this example of how it could work:

Start with your job description, what you get paid to do. Let's say, for hypothetical purposes, that you're a census taker. You collect nationwide household information and compile thorough reports. Then it's a matter of peeling the onion. Why is collecting nationwide household information important? Because it gives the government current information on our nation's population. Why is that important? Because we can then understand our population trends. Why is that important? Because it helps our government make informed decisions. Why is that important? Because it enables the government to improve the social welfare of the nation. And there's the real "cause": improving the welfare of the nation.

The beauty of using the 5 Whys to understand your real work — work with a capital W — is that it frees you to accept a wider variety of jobs, because you can remain true to your cause regardless of the form your work takes. Designers call this "form following function."

By getting to the bottom of the simple question — why is my work important? — a manager might begin to view their real work as helping people improve their performance, not just running a department. A factory worker in an automotive plant might begin to view their real work as protecting families as they travel, not just operating machinery. A coffee shop counterperson might view their real work as helping busy people get a nice start to a hectic day. A golf course greenkeeper might begin to view his work not as lawn maintenance, but rather a creative challenge: enabling golfers to shoot their best round.

I don't know if my friend actually did the 5 Whys, but I hope he did.

— Matthew E. May

Check out more great stories from Matthew E. May:

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