The 5 Whys

By: Jim Bruce

A few years ago, Charles Duhigg, who you likely know through his earlier book The Power of Habit, was interviewing people at exceptionally productive companies for his 2016 book Smarter Faster Better:  The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business.”  As he did this, he often asked for help in solving a family problem:  How could he and his wife (who also has a demanding job) and their two sons, now ages five and eight, regularly eat dinner together?
The presenting cause was that he and his wife never seemed to be able to get away from their offices at a consistent time because of unfinished tasks.  But, that was only the beginning.
Duhigg’s quest led him to a method known as the “5 Why’s.”  The 5 Whys is a problem resolution approach that focuses on identifying and resolving the root causes of a problem rather than just dealing with issues that are immediately apparent.
The 5 Whys is one of the many tools that are part of the Toyota Productivity System (TPS), which holds at its core the principle that even the most complex problems have simple causes.  You just have to diligently search for them.  Fundamentally, TPS is an integrated socio-technical system that encompasses Toyota’s management philosophy and practices.  It is a major precursor to generic lean manufacturing and was developed between 1948 and 1975.
Too often, when we see a problem, we jump immediately to what appears to be the cause only to learn later that the cause we identified is a “bystander,” overshadowing the root cause.  And, unless we address the root cause(s), the problem we seek to address will continue to occur and its solution elude us.
5 Whys is a tool to engage in precision targeting to address the right problem.  The concept is simple:
1.  Identify and clearly state the apparent issue.  In Duhigg’s example, not being able to regularly sit down for dinner together as a family was the issue.
2.  Ask yourself, and perhaps a few (but not too many), knowledgeable and affected individuals why this happens.  Identify as many possible causes as you can.  At this point, don’t judge the validity of your responses.
3.  For each of the causes identified, ask again, why did this happen?
4.  Repeat the second and third steps five times.  At this point, you should have identified the root cause.  (Sometimes you might not have to go five cycles, sometimes you may need more.)
5.  Find solutions and countermeasures to address the root cause(s).
Bulsuk in his paper “Using a Fishbone (or Ishikawa) Diagram to Perform 5-Why Analysis,” has a good illustration of using the process on the problem “application processing was behind schedule” in a particular situation.  Seeing an example played out can be instructive.  It can both help you understand the tool and, in this instance, demonstrate one way to document your work.
Ricardo Semler, CEO of Semler Partners, a Brazilian company known for its unusual organizational structure and for corporate reengineering, writing in his 2004 book, The Seven Day Weekend, suggests that we should always ask why.  In particular, he suggests that you also use the 5 Whys as you set your goals and in your decision-making.
So as so as you encounter challenges and opportunities, today and in the future, pause, and take the 5 Whys tool out of your toolbox and put it to use and ask why.  I think that you will be surprised at the insight asking that simple question will provide as you work through the issue.
[And, for the curious, Duhigg’s search for a way to have dinner with his wife and kids led to a simple, yet really unexpected solution:  Lay out their clothes for the next day before they go to sleep each night.  You can find the details in his NY Times column.]
Do ask why whenever you can as you go about making it a great week.  .  .   jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Charles Duhigg, How Asking 5 Questions Allowed Me to Eat Dinner With My Kids, The New York Times, March 10, 2016. 
Karn G. Bulsuk, An Introduction to 5-Why, Bulsuk webpages.
Karn G. Bulsuk, Using a Fishbone (or Ishikawa) Diagram to Perform 5-why Analysis, Bulsuk webpages.
Wikipedia, Toyota Production System, edited April 12, 2017.
Wikipedia, 5 Whys, edited May 22, 2017.
Ricardo Semler, The Seven Day Weekend, Penguin, 2004.

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