Five Whys

When you want to be sure you’re getting at the real problem, not just its surface manifestations, use “five Why’s”. It could be the difference between painting over water stains on the ceiling, and fixing the leaky roof.

This is a team sport. You’ll need markers, sticky notes and dot stickers. Give yourselves 30 minutes.

  1. Announce the problem you’ve gathered to work on, and collectively rephrase it in the form of a “Why” question. (That is, rephrase “Such-and-such is a problem” as “Why is such- and-such happening?” or “Why is such-and-such a problem?”) That’s your first Why. Write it on a sticky note and post it on the wall.
  2. Ask everyone to answer the question on a sticky note and post their answers on the wall.
  3. Dot vote on the answers to single out one that’s true, important and perhaps a bit mysterious. Rephrase the answer as a “Why” question, write it on a sticky note and post it on the wall.
  4. Repeat the cycle of answers, dot voting and rephrasing as a “Why” question until the group agrees that you’ve gotten to the root of the problem. Five Why’s are typically sufficient but sometimes you’ll hit on a root problem sooner, or to have to go a few extra rounds.
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This game is about reading between the lines. It’s important to be honest during this exercise. Try to jot down the first answers that come to mind, without self-censoring or second-guessing. If you avoid the tough questions then you are limiting the quality of the information. At worst, you could end up solving the wrong problem.

Five Why’s is especially useful when you’ve got a hunch the problem you’re facing is really a symptom of a less obvious problem. This exercise works best if you can assemble a diverse team, people who play different roles in the organization and bring different expertise to the room. You don’t really know what your problem is yet, so it might take someone from the other side of the building to recognize it or ask the Why that pinpoints it.

Don’t discard the sticky notes right away. If you’ve got time and the goodwill of your team, you can revisit an early Why, choose the runner-up answer, and follow that trail for five Why’s. You may find yourselves coming back to the same root problem, but you may also uncover another one that contributes to make a bad situation worse.