One of the most famous and simple problem-solving methodologies introduced by Toyota has become known as the five why’s. It’s a tool where you simply keep asking “Why” 5 times to identify the root cause of the problem and potentially a simple solution.
We all naturally ask Why all the time? The last figure I heard is that kids ask around 90 questions a day many of them “Why?” style questions. And often when trying to explain the best way to imagine how the ‘Five Whys’ work is to imagine children asking “why” … again and again. As adults we ask Why once or maybe twice. To ask our friends more than twice, may make us look like petulant children. To ask you boss “Why?” once may not even feel possible in case it comes across threatening or disrespectful, or perhaps you will feel that its a sign of your own lack of knowledge.
But asking why without the threatening and undermining tone is an essential way we all began to learn. Asking why almost gets kicked out of us at school and with it the questioning mind that we all need if we actually want to do something different.
As a parent, I know the feeling in the car when your own child in the back asks a question. The response that is given just does not satisfy their curiosity or help them order that particular information as they need to or as they would like to. So they ask “Why Dad?”.
It does not take long within this cycle of asking “why?” before we all begin to have difficulty to answer. We twist our logic as we try to justify why we said what we said in the first place … “but why?” just keeps on coming and before you know it we end up tongue-tied and just putting our foot down with “STOP! That’s just how it is! Alright”
The ‘Five Whys’ is this simple in theory. It asks us to take an open mind to a problem and to not be afraid to keep asking why five times (plus or minus a couple depending on the situation). The goal is to get down to an almost “A-HA!” moment when we have begun to uncover a root cause.
So let’s bring this to life with a real-life example regarding the Washington Monument.
The Washington Monument and others for that matter were deteriorating quite badly in the early 90’s and people were unsure why. However, on the desk of Don Messersmith, an esteemed Entomologist (the scientific study of insects) was what has become one of the most famous examples of the five whys approach to problem-solving.
Just for the curious: Messersmith, Donald H. 1993. Lincoln Memorial Lighting and Midge Study. Unpublished report prepared for the National Park Service. CX-2000-1-0014. N.p
The problem was simple: The Washinton Monument in Washington D.C. is deteriorating.
Why #1 – Why is the monument deteriorating?
- Because harsh chemicals are frequently used to clean the monument
Why #2 – Why are harsh chemicals needed?
- To clean off the large number of bird droppings being left on the monument
Why #3 – Why are there a large number of bird droppings on the monument?
- Because of the large number of spiders and other insects which are a food source of the birds
Why #4 – Why are there large numbers of spiders and other insects around the monument?
- Because the insects get drawn to the monument at dusk
Why #5 – Why are the insects drawn to the monument at dusk?
- Because the lighting in the evening attracts the local insects
This classic five why example shows how the goal of this problem-solving approach is to move past the first level inquiry. It would have been quite easy to change the chemical which was causing the apparent issue or investigate different cleaning methods which may slow the deterioration but nothing more.
The solution implemented was simply to delay turning on the lights at night. The result was a spectacular 85% reduction in the midges by 85% and consequently, a massive drop in bird droppings and the level of cleaning required. The added bonus was also a reduction in energy costs.*
Five Why application to Customer / User Experience
The five why approach can be used in almost all scenarios where you are trying to resolve an identified problem that you have. So in the example below, let’s look at customer behavior.
In the book “Hooked (How to Build Habit-Forming Products)”, the author Nir Eyal (www.nirandfar.com), uses the five whys approach to dig into users behavior and tries to identify the underlying root cause of the behavior. He points out that “one method is to try asking the question “Why?” as many times as it takes to get to an emotion.” The emotion behind a behavior is often the driving force and the trigger which forms habits.
Problem: What drives people to use email?
Why #1 – Why would Julie want to use email?
- So she can send and receive messages.
Why #2 – Why does she want to do that?
- Because she wants to share and receive information quickly?
Why #3 – Why does she want to do that?
- To know what’s going on in the lives of her coworkers, friends, and family.
Why #4 – Why does she need to know that?
- To know if someone needs her.
Why #5 – Why would she care about that?
- She fears to be out of the loop
While the final “why” appears to points to something very different than the Washington Monument example they both uncover a root cause. One is the lighting attracting the midges whereas in the example above its finding the root emotion that drives people to use a particular product and knowing that emotion can help business connect with their customers at a deeper level to build successful products that customer want to engage with.
“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.” – Winnie the Pooh
The Five Why’s (5Whys) remains one of the simplest tools to remember and it’s easy to put into practice. Like many of the best and simple tools, they need to be tested and practiced to get the best from them. All too often the teams never get anywhere near 5 Why’s. Teams quickly get overexcited and stop at 2 or 3 Whys as they have managed quickly jumped to a solution that looks great because it has never been tried before. Always try to get to 5.
And remember, this is processed focused so try to avoid the trap of seeing people’s capability and training as the single root cause. If you end up with lots of “more training is required” as a solution then go back up and try again and see if anything has been missed from a process point of view.
In our experience, any issue or problem can be automatically improved by asking why as a group. It has helped teams better understand their customers’ needs, it has helped organizations save thousands of dollars on fixing the wrong thing.
As always, we are looking to learn more about your experiences and examples using the Five Why’s – so please share below or via social media.
Some tips on how to use the “five why” approach
- This is a team exercise and asking the why needs to be explorative and not in any form understood as criticism
- For each Why? There may be multiple reasons and each of these need to go through a separate set of 5 why discussion. You will then need to prioritize the potential root causes either through a Pareto or through a simple voting system initially to understand which ones the team believes need to be investigated first.
- Keep in mind that we are focused on processes and not always people. Remember the 94/6 rule – that 94% of the issues come from your process and 6% of the issues from the people. So if you end up with more training as the root cause, take it from me, you have missed something major.
The results of a five why analysis
When conducting five why’s, they are never quite as neat as the examples above. Each time you ask why there will rarely be only one reason. You are much more likely to end up with 10 to 15 different potential root causes. As a team, you can then work through the potential root causes and with testing, piloting or perhaps through a simple team vote, begin to prioritize solutions.
The below slide from our Lean Six Sigma training deck visually captures how five why’s may actually work in reality.
* A quick footnote on the Washington Monument
Like many real improvement opportunities, the hardest part is the change management. And the Washington Monument is not the exception. As the light’s were turned on later, the iconic tourist photographs of the monument at dusk vanished. The complaints started to arrive. Even from the cities inhabitants complaints started to arrive. While a solution had been found to stop the use of heavy cleaning chemicals, this monument was a landmark and symbol of the city. And it was not too long before the lights were back on and the government was looking for a new solution.