Using The 5 Whys to Solve Every Problem

One tool I've used across a number of business areas is “The 5 Whys.” This simple tool can be widely applied to any department or business venture to help your team members interrogate information and provide the most accurate insights to the company.

Using The 5 Whys to Solve Every Problem

A version of this article originally appeared in Forbes.

For any scaling business, ensuring that your growing team is aligned to a strong company mission and empowered with culture and values that are exhibited every day is vital to successful growth. Culture and mission should be celebrated and team members coached to help them develop. Behind culture are tools and processes which help team members at all levels to quickly make decisions, complete tasks and learn from mistakes in a safe environment.

One tool I've used across a number of business areas is “The 5 Whys.” This simple tool can be widely applied to any department or business venture to help your team members interrogate information and provide the most accurate insights to the company.

Origins

"The 5 Whys" were initially developed in the 1930s by Sakichi Toyada, founder of Toyota industries, in order to understand the reasoning behind developing new product features or manufacturing processes. The tool is now used within other manufacturing philosophies and processes like Kaizen, lean manufacturing and Six Sigma. In his book, The Seven Day Weekend, Ricardo Semler of Semco cites an adapted “3 Whys” methodology, similarly intended for use in decision-making and goal setting.

How To Use 'The 5 Whys'

The method is extremely simple: whatever the statement, challenge or problem, you can identify the correct outcome or identify the underlying cause by asking "why?" five times. This helps the user understand the root of the issue and identify a counter-measure.

The pedagogy behind "The 5 Whys" is that it allows the user to reveal the hidden influence of a distant cause while illustrating to the user the importance of diving deeper and developing curiosity. Curiosity has been identified as a characteristic of high-performing salespeople and having a tool and system that fosters curiosity in your team is extremely helpful.

Imagine your sales team adopts a sales approach where they are charged with educating the customer and tailoring the conversation to the customer's needs. During a qualification call, they ask the customer what their main problem is and what your company may be able to assist with.

Customer Problem: We need a tool to help us grow our Q1 revenue.

Why? At present, we are behind our quota.

Why? We haven’t closed enough deals.

Why? We don’t have enough qualified leads coming into our sales funnel from marketing.

Why? We aren’t building an audience on social media.

Why? We are a small team and don’t have time to post regularly.

Solution: Re-align customers with data about the importance and impact of social media marketing and suggest an automation tool for scheduling social posts along with an implementation plan for the client.

As you can see with the above example, the system could just as easily be used to interrogate bottlenecks in your own revenue pipeline, therefore demonstrating the versatility of "The 5 Whys."

The tool can also be used for coaching and goal setting, such as interrogating the "whys" behind established "objectives and key results" (OKR) and why they will align to the company mission. You also don't need to limit yourself to only five questions; you can keep going in order to further distill your understanding of the core issue.

The Power Of 'The 5 Whys'

The tool provides a simple, memorable framework and fall-back interrogation system that teams can use in order to get to the root of most issues. This, in turn, enables accurate and informed communication between teams and business areas. Think of a time your engineering or product team has asked your sales team a question about why a customer has requested a feature only for them to state they are not sure. "The 5 Whys" fosters curiosity and allows interrogation of requests or processed to be scaled as your company grows.

For founders and executives, it is also powerful when used as a self-assessment tool for your own decisions. For example, asking questions such as “Why am I suggesting this strategy?” or “Why am I stressed?” will help you reflect and get to the core of your own decision-making and beliefs.

This methodology is also widely employed in coaching situations where the person being coached is encouraged to deeply explore and analyze their assumptions and responses to learn more about their own internal processes. They can then assess their approaches to certain situations and highlight areas for focused personal and professional improvement.

Limitations

While "The 5 Whys" can be used in a number of business areas, it is important to note that its use as a root cause analysis tool has been criticized for its oversimplification since many errors are often multi-faceted. This is especially true in healthcare (I’m a former surgeon) where human factors and time pressures can lead to a diverse error-causal relationship.

Like all tools, this system should not be enforced and mandated in a way that removes innate curiosity and intelligence, but as a more general framework that teams can fall back upon, should they get stuck or fail to get to the bottom of a matter.

Implementation

To get started and test whether this tool can help your own business, begin by integrating it into your own coaching tools and leadership self-coaching regimen. This will give you a personal insight into whether it is simpler or more effective than your existing tools or whether it is unnecessary. You might also like to analyze areas where solutions are failing to solve problems. Reviewing recurrent problem areas, where interrogating a deeper cause may reveal a wider issue or different approach to improving a business area might just be the solution to getting your business back on track.