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Matthew E. May

Health Care

Dig in with 5 Whys

This underused technique can solve problems beyond the shop floor

Published: Wednesday, January 30, 2013 - 17:52

Recently I had a conversation with a friend who was upset about some directional shifts and a looming job shuffle within his company. As I listened to the lament, I recognized that the changes he described focused 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’être 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 leave, immediately. Although in the end that might play out as the right thing to do, the problem-solving coach in me couldn’t resist butting in.

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

“A what?” he asked. “What do you mean?”

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

It’s easy 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. Here’s a simple example. Let’s say your child comes home with a D in math on his report card. For most parents, that’s a clearly defined problem. The 5 Whys in that instance might go something like this:

“Why did you get a D in math?” After much I-don't-knowing and shoulder-shrugging, your child says, “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.” However, incomplete homework is most likely not the real issue. So you need to press on.

“Why didn’t you do your homework?”

“I hate math.” (Ugly face, like he 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 just don’t get it.” (Throwing hands in the air. This is 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 help is 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, it didn’t take five whys to get to the root cause—it took four. There is no magic around the number five, contrary to popular belief. It’s a heuristic process, a guideline, not an algorithm. With a well-framed problem, it may take only a couple of 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 but a a vertical dive. In other words, you’re not asking, “Why else?” time after time. Rather, each succeeding why proceeds from the answer to the previous why. It’s much like drilling for oil: Sometimes you hit 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, such as, “Why didn’t you ask for help?” the response might have just taken you back up the chain—i.e., 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 our homework case, starting at the bottom and working your way up, you get: Your child doesn’t understand math, so he performs poorly at it, which results in his not liking it. And because he doesn’t like it, he avoids doing his homework, which results in a D on his report card.

The reasoning makes sense whether the flow is down or up.

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

Back to my friend. I told him the story of how, back in the early 1990s, a colleague of mine at Toyota used the 5 Whys to create his own first job. After his initial training, his manager in Japan told him, “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 United States. 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 parts pricing. Why the misunderstanding? Because Toyota had never really explained the rationale behind its policies regarding the supply of parts and would not negotiate 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 its position; they simply did not speak the other’s language.

I could see my friend’s mental wheels spinning as I told him this story. 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 I gave this example of how it could work:

Start with your job description, i.e., 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. Once you have the description, it’s a matter of peeling the onion. Why is collecting nationwide household information important? Because it gives the government current information about 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—and that’s 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 her real work as helping people improve their performance, not just running a department. A factory worker in an automotive plant might begin to view his real work as protecting families as they travel, not just operating machinery. A coffee shop counterperson might begin to view her real work as helping busy people get a nice start to a hectic day. A golf course greenskeeper 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. Do you use this technique? If so, how and when and where? I’d love to hear stories.

First published on the Edit Innovation blog. Reprinted with permission.


About The Author

Matthew E. May’s picture

Matthew E. May

Matthew E. May counsels executives and teams through custom designed facilitation, coaching, and training using four basic ingredients: strategy, ideation, experimentation, and lean. He’s been counseling for 30 years, a third of it as a full-time advisor to Toyota. He is the author of four books, the latest The Laws of Subtraction (McGraw-Hill, 2013), and is working on his fifth book. His work has been appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, and many other publications. May holds an MBA from The Wharton School and a bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University.


The Original 5 Whys on the 4 W's and 1H

Nice article and metaphor Matthew,

Rings true for us parents and how often they ask Why. As Dr Deming was lamenting how Universities almost break that Critical Questionning Technique and enquiring student mind.

I retuned to my ILO Geneva book on Work Study and also the AIAG FMEA text where as like Toyoya who copied it, the original 5 Whys are actually this: The situation is subjected to the Critical Questions drawn from Rudyard Kipling "6 Honest Serving Men" being the 4 W's and the H have a Why asked against each. As extracted from the various texts and Toyota's books:


  • What (step)
  • Where (place)
  • When (sequence)
  • Who (person)
  • How (method) and then
  • Why for each of the above (justification)

"5 Why Analysis" ILO Work Study & TPS) to identify what to COMBINE, ELIMINATE or SIMPLIFY courtesy of Alan Mogensen of Work Simplification Institute Grand Rapids Mic USA in days gone by.

Page 256 of The Toyota Way book by Dr J Liker is worth also noting. "5-Why Investigation of Root Cause" is step 4 of their 7 steps Toyota "Practical Problem-Solving Process"

Timely article Matthew and worth discussing with clients over the next few weeks.

Michael McLean