The Five “Whys?”

I have an eight year old daughter, she is verging on perfect (well I am her Dad).  Unfortunately there are a number of bits where she is not so verging on perfect.  One of those is her constant questions, why why why why why?.  As the saying goes “It does my head in”.

This is a bit odd, because I preach the “5 Whys?” at work.  So what is the difference?

The idea behind the “5 Whys?” is a simple one.  Don’t take things at face value, look a little deeper, try to understand what is going on.

The practice is also simple.  All you need to do is ask “Why?” 5 times in a row (without getting punched on the nose).  If you do that you will get down to the nub of the problem, the root cause.

We have abandoned (not answered) 3,000 customer calls

1. Why?

We didn’t have the right number of staff

2. Why?

There were more calls than expected

3. Why?

Lots of bills went in the post on the same day

4. Why?

We didn’t print any for a week

5. Why?

Because the system interface with the printer was broken

Asking “Why?” 5 times helps understanding.  I could go on asking “Why?”  Why was the system interface broken?  The number 5 isn’t important, it just implies a level of rigour.

The important thing is to think whilst you are asking “Why?”

  • Does this explanation make sense?  (Does the printer have a system interface?)
  • Have I got to a point that I can do something about the issue? (Can I blame IT?  If you run IT now is probably not a good time to stop asking “Why?”)
  • Is there anything else going on that I should worry about? (Why do customers phone when they get a bill anyway?  Was the bill wrong?)

And that is why my daughter does my head in, she asks “why?”, but she doesn’t apply any common sense, she doesn’t think about the answer.

Five Whys?

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Image by Mike V


  1. Hello James

    Your daughter is not the only one!

    I have often noticed how my thinking suffers when I am deeply enmeshed in a situation. I have also found that the most valuable service I render is simply to help people ask these questions and gently point out when their answers do not make sense to me.

    Genuine curiousity and search for knowledge – to question the taken for granted – I have found to be a rare thing in business. The scientific method (which I was brought up with) is not one that fits well into the business landscape. The prevailing ideaology and/or fad crowds out the curious, questioning, scientific mind.


  2. James Lawther says:

    Thanks for your comment Maz, I couldn’t agree more, we always jump for the Emperor’s new clothes. Why is that?


  3. Hi James,
    To use ‘why’ to investigate and get down the nub of a problem is a really skill as you rightly point out.

    But to answer your question posed to Maz, I would suggest that we jump to the new things because not to requires discipline, hard work and honesty……much of which we don;t really like a lot of the time.


  4. James,

    Why x 5 is certainly an easier course to teach that root cause analysis and probably more effective for it. My own experience on teaching that stuff was most folk lack the concentration to peel the onion. I also suspect that many experience life as a series of random events so linking them as cause and effect is confusing.

    Thus humbled and now with more realistic ambitions, I would elevate your daughter’s current capabilties and merely rejoice in the enthusiasm to ask the question. How many co-workers do you have that still do that without expensive re-skilling?


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