The Five Why’s

Let’s say that this weekend you’ve got your little nephew coming over to stay with you while your sister is out of town. We’ll call him Daniel. Daniel is six years old and wants to go see a new Disney movie that just released. Unfortunately, you’ve got a lot of work to do this weekend and, as much as you hate it, you have to say no. What’s Daniel’s response?

“Why?”

You tell him that you have some work you have to get done.

“Why?”

“Because I didn’t have time to do it during the week.”

“Why?”

“Because I had other work to do at that time.”

“Why?”

“Because I didn’t get that work done the week before.”

“Why?”

“Alright, Daniel, you’ve got me! I’ve become addicted to playing Angry Birds on my phone and it put me behind last week!”

Now, I don’t seriously suspect you’re behind on your work because of an iPhone game addiction, but this juvenile habit of asking “why” over and over again is actually a valuable lesson in the world of business. Root causes of problems are usually not close to the surface or easy to identify, and digging down several layers is a way to identify the real culprits. In fact, simple problems usually have complex and often multiple root causes. You may not even be able to see the way these issues interact until everything is laid out on the table.

As if that weren’t reason enough, using layers of “Why” to evaluate workplace issues is easy. There’s no statistical analysis, no spreadsheets, and no easier way to get to the bottom of things in a quick manner.

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In Practice…

General practice is to complete this exercise to five layers – keeping going until you’ve asked and answered “Why?” five times (Five Whys). Let’s go through it step by step just to make things crystal clear.

First write down a specific problem you’ve observed. Just the exercise of writing a problem down will make you think intentionally about how you word it and may offer some insight into what exactly is challenging you.

Next ask yourself why that problem is occurring and write down answer. Don’t get ahead of yourself here, just write down the most immediate cause and isolate it.

Third, look at what you’ve written down and decide if you can dig deeper. In the early stages, you almost always can. If what you’re written down is not the very root, deepest cause of the problem, then go back and repeat the second step, digging one “why layer” deeper.

Continue this process until it is agreed upon that what you and/or your team are left looking at is the very root of the problem. While five times is a rule of thumb, this can vary greatly depending on the issue you’re tackling; don’t stop at five if you think you can keep going deeper and don’t force yourself to get to five if your answers are increasingly irrelevant or you feel you’ve already identified the root cause.

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