Problems vs. Solutions: 5 Whys

As a coach, I typically avoid using “Why” to start a question because it tends to put people on the defensive.

  • Why is this so hard for you?
  • Why can’t you make a decision?
  • Why are you afraid to change careers?
  • Why didn’t you follow up with your prospects?
  • Why react so negatively?

Asking these same questions without the “Why” avoids making the other person feel judged or in the wrong. For instance:

  • Why is this so hard for you?” becomes “Tell me about what makes this so hard.
  • Why can’t you make a decision?” becomes “What would need to happen for you to make a decision?

The difference might seem subtle, but it’s there.

Sometimes though there’s a great reason to ask Why questions—and, in fact, ask a number of them in a row.

The 5 Whys

It’s called 5 Whys, and is a technique used to explore cause and effect relationships underlying a problem—and ultimately to get to the root cause of the problem itself.

The concept is attributed to Sakichi Toyoda, a Japanese inventor and industrialist. Toyoda discovered that by asking at least 5 “Why?” questions, the nature of a problem and its solution became clear.

While this technique originated in the manufacturing realm, the process of iteratively asking “Why?” is useful for getting to the root cause and problem solving in our everyday lives too.

Here’s how it works

When a problem occurs, ask “Why?” five times to find the source or cause of the problem. Following is the 5 Whys from a coaching session with Mary, a web designer.

First, I ask Mary to define the problem. ⇒ Mary: One of my web design clients is dissatisfied and may defect.

  • Why is the client dissatisfied? (1st why) ⇒ Mary: Because I failed to meet the agreed upon deadline for delivering mock-ups for their new website design.
  • Why did you fail to deliver the work when promised? (2nd why) ⇒ Mary: Creating the mock-ups took much longer than I expected.
  • Why did the mock-ups take longer than expected? (3rd why) ⇒ Mary: Because I underestimated the complexity of the job.
  • Why did you underestimate the complexity of the job? (4th why) ⇒ Mary: Because I didn’t realize how many layers and pages would be included in the redesign.
  • Why didn’t you realize how many layers and pages would be included in the redesign? (5th why, a root cause) ⇒ Mary: Because I don’t have a template or framework for scoping and time estimation to use when project planning.

As a result of 5 Whys, Mary landed on this solution: Create a framework that allows her to fully understand project scope upfront and generate solid time estimates.

Get to the root cause

Repeating “Why?” multiple times is critical because if you stop too soon you’ll still be at the symptom level, not the root cause. Stopping too soon can be misleading and negatively impact your ability to effectively address the problem.

For instance, let’s say a client misses his early morning coaching appointment and I ask, “Why?” He answers, “Because I was too tired and didn’t hear my alarm go off.”

Being too tired and not hearing the alarm is not the root cause of the problem. We’re still at the symptom level.

The next “Why?” would peel another layer: “Why were you so tired you didn’t hear the alarm?

Because I stayed up until 3 a.m.”

Peel another layer: “Why did you stay up until 3 a.m.?”

And so on…

One thing to keep in mind: Five is not always the magic number. However, this number of iterations gets to the source of the problem most times. If you need a sixth or seven “Why?”, simply keep going until you get to the root cause.

I frequently use 5 Whys with my clients to navigate through multiple layers of symptoms—moving from an abstract or incomplete understanding of causes to the root cause of a particular problem.

Could the 5 Whys help you discover the root cause of a problem?