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You really want to get to the root of the problem? Ask why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

Updated: Feb 15, 2023

So maybe when you saw the 5 whys in the title, you thought about a child always asking you why. It may seem annoying when they keep asking why, but it is a key way children learn about the world, and, as leaders, we can also learn from this common tactic used by children to uncover the root source of performance issues in our organization.

What are the 5 Whys?

Although asking why is probably as old as mankind, the technique of the 5 whys was developed by Sakichi Toyoda and famously used in Toyota for problem analysis. The idea was not to stop at the first why you arrive at but to keep asking why (like a child) to get to the root of the problem, hopefully.

For example, say we have a poorly performing employee named Mario.

  1. Why isn't Mario producing quality work? Because he isn't motivated.

  2. Now you want to ask a second why. "Why isn't Mario motivated?" There can be a myriad of responses, such as, he is overqualified for his position, he doesn't feel validated when he puts in the effort, and the systems are too complicated for him to follow once we have asked the second why, we are uncovering more information.

  3. Now we can ask a third time. "Why doesn't he feel validated when he puts in the effort?" Now we discover that there was no recognition when he put in extra hours for a report he did a year ago, so he doesn't see the point of giving full effort to his work.

  4. Our next why asks, "Why didn't his manager acknowledge the extra time Mario put in?", and we learn that the manager didn't see any reason for acknowledging work that employees are expected to do.

  5. Our fifth why asks, "Why didn't the manager think she should acknowledge extra effort?", and now we learn she has never been exposed to ideas showing how employees put forth more effort when their efforts are acknowledged.

Why do leaders need to practice the 5 Whys?

Asking why is a powerful question that needs to be practiced by all leaders. One of the most watched TedTalks of all time is Simon Sinek's talk about the importance of leaders asking why?

By forcing ourselves to ask more questions, we can learn what is the root of the problem and design solutions which will lead to change. In my example with Mario above, if we just write off Mario as unmotivated, then we probably will look for ways to replace him with someone more motivated, but replacing employees is a difficult and expensive process. Furthermore, because we haven't addressed the root problem, it is likely to recur with new employees as well.

However, by asking the 5 Whys, we can discover ways to address our problems which will have a much more significant impact. In the example, we have discovered that we could train our managers on the importance of acknowledging work our employees are already doing, and not only will that help Mario be more engaged with his work, but we will have a positive impact on our other employees as well.

How can I do it?

The key to implementing the 5 whys is a matter of practice. It may not work in every situation, and it may not take you down an appropriate path. It could also branch into multiple pathways. However, it is a starting point to digging deeper to finding sustainable solutions to the problems you are facing. The key is to keep asking why until you discover an action you can take to solve your problems.

Action Steps

Think of a problem you are currently facing. Find a partner who can ask you why 5 times (you are more likely to give thoughtful answers by being accountable to someone else).

Want more?

Visit Lindow Learning to read about more tips on improving your team's performance or for help in growing better humans and improving the impact of your organization's mission.


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