The 5-Why’s: A discovery tool that’s not just for toddlers

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For any parents out there or for anyone who’s ever spent time with a three-year-old, you are familiar with the question “why”? It seems like the stream of why’s can be endless. This inquisitive nature is lost for many in adulthood. This lost art of asking why can be very beneficial when you’re looking at issues within your organization. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, just like those toddler questions! But, I offer you this: it can be a great way to discover the root cause of problems, needs, or performance gaps you and your organization face. While the repeated asking can be somewhat monotonous, there are great insights and answers to be found in the process. I invite you to learn more about the 5-why’s and get to the root of your problem or questions…just stop short of shouting “because I said so!”         

What’s the Problem?

Whether you are for-profit, non-profit, or government you are in business to solve a problem. Being able to state the problem effectively is a giant step toward offering your customers a solution to the problem you aim to solve.

“We need money for a counselor. That’s why we’re looking for grants”

“We need to cut costs to be profitable”

You are trying  to solve a problem: your organization needs funding. But is that the real problem you are trying to solve?

Defining the true problem will set you up for success.

A word of caution: the problem is not the solution. The problem isn’t the need for the solution; there’s a problem that’s driving you to look at potential solutions.

Here’s a couple of examples of solutions in the problem statement:

“The problem is that we need a new school in our community.”

Is the problem that you need a new school, or is it that the current schools are overcrowded or falling apart?

“The problem is that there isn’t any research that supports my theory.”

Is the problem that there isn’t any research that supports the theory, is it that the research has found the opposite, or that the research isn’t the problem at all – it’s a problem in the community that you are exploring?

To revisit the example above:

“We need a counselor to address the growing substance use problems in our school before students get into real trouble.”

Is the problem/need for a school counselor, or that there is a growing substance use problem and students are facing life-changing consequences because of the substance use?

“We have a financial shortfall and need to cut expenses to below our revenue”

Is the financial shortfall because your expenses are too high? Or did something else happen that shifted the balance of income/expense?

If you have a solution, intervention, or research question in your problem statement, you need to dig a little deeper.

The 5-Why’s

How do you get to the real problem? The 5-Why’s exercise, while newly energized as a go-to business tool, has been around for decades as a method for digging in to find the source of an issue.

This simple yet effective method will take a concern and drive the group to analyze the reasons for problems and thinking patterns.

The exercise goes like this:

  1. State the problem at hand
  2. Ask “Why” (or “so that,” or “because…”, whatever phrasing will get the dialogue going)
  3. Capture the thought(s) that come next
  4. Ask “Why” again and capture the thoughts produced until you’ve asked at least 5 times.
  5. The result is a root-cause of the problem.

When you do this in a group, it’s best to have everyone do the asking and answering on their own and then come back together to discuss what everyone’s chain of statements. You will likely come up with several root causes that (1) are all right answers, and (2) can be addressed in a comprehensive programmatic solution that will address the problem from multiple vantage points.

5-Why’s Examples

Here’s an example of the 5-Why’s digging deeper to get to the root cause of a problem.

We need money for a counselor.

Why?

There’s a growing substance use problem in our school, and students are getting into real trouble.

Why?

Students are showing up to events high or drunk, and we are obligated to report them.

Why?

Their parents think it’s ok for them to drink or use marijuana at home.

Why?

They don’t think it’s a big deal.

Why?

Alcohol and marijuana are legal in some places for adults, so they think it’s ok as long as they don’t drive.

Ah-ha!!

Do you need a counselor at the school? Probably. Will that solve the problem? Probably not. The issue extends to the adults in the community, not just the students. You’ll likely want to have a community education/outreach initiative as well as the counselor.

Using the 5-Why’s approach can help you clarify what you are really trying to solve. This method is especially useful when you feel you are at an impasse, the solution doesn’t feel right, the problem seems too big, or what you are doing does not seem to resonate with your customers/participants.

Template for Reference

Here’s an example of a template to work through your 5-Why’s. After your first draft in the table, revise the statement to be a complete thought/sentence.

Current State<<This is what is happening now>>
Problem<<this is why that’s a problem>>
Why… or So that… or Because…<<Response>>
Why…  <<Response>>
Why…  <<Response>>
Why…  <<Response>>
Why…  <<Response>>
The Problem<<Rewrite in a statement>>  

What’s the problem you need to run through the 5-Why’s? Drop a comment to let me know how you might use this approach.

Happy solving!

Stacy Fitzsimmons is the Founder and CEO of SNF Writing Solutions, LLC

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