Key learning outcomes:

  • Learn that Toyoda’s 5 Whys is a useful problem-solving tool in both your work and personal lives.
  • Apply the 5 Whys technique to both problem-solving and goal-setting.
  • Recognise that the more we understand why we want something, the more likely we are to achieve it.
  • Understand the limitation of the 5 Whys technique when problems have multiple causes.

Article

The “5 Whys” is a technique that allows you to get to the root cause of a problem. Often we treat the symptoms rather than the cause, and this can lead to either a recurrence of the problem or bigger problems down the track. Using the 5 Whys technique is one way to solve a problem and move on.

The tool

The 5 Whys technique was developed in the 1930s by Sakichi Toyoda, an industrialist and one of the founders of the car company Toyota. Toyota has a philosophy of continual improvement and looks for solutions to problems by seeking to understand the processes and systems. Toyoda’s 5 Whys is a simple yet highly effective tool that can be used to solve problems in your business and daily life.  We also find it useful in the goal setting process to get to the root of why a person wants to achieve something.  It is proven that the stronger and more powerful the why the higher the chance of successfully achieving the goal.

The technique is relatively simple and involves asking a series of questions. Each answer forms the basis of the next question until the root cause of the problem is found. While the tool is called the “5 Whys”, it may take more than five questions to reach the root cause.[wlm_ismember]

The 5 Whys in action

The following simple example illustrates how you can use the technique to isolate the cause of a problem and prevent it from recurring:

Problem: The air conditioning is not working

 

Why? The warning light is on.

Why? The filter is dirty.

Why? It has not been cleaned.

Why? The person who used to organise it has not done it.

Why? They no longer work here and no system is in place to ensure the air conditioning system is serviced regularly.

 

Action: Book in a regular maintenance call with the air conditioning company.

Problem-solving

The 5 Whys is most effective when used to solve relatively simple problems. To get the best results the answers should come from the people directly involved in the process or system that is being investigated. This is why Toyota does not use this technique in the boardroom as often as it does on the shop floor, which is where the problems are actually occurring.

The technique does have some shortcomings and is considered to be inadequate if used for more complex issues when there may actually be multiple causes of the problem. We do however believe it is always a useful place to start the problem-solving process, particularly when there is a breakdown in a process or system.

Let’s look at the following customer complaint in a real estate office:

Problem: The customer is not happy because their property was not advertised.

 

Why? The advertisement missed the advertising deadline.

Why? The final approval from the sales agent came in too late.

Why? The advertisement was left on the sales agent’s desk, but they did not get it back to the marketing department in time.

Why? The sales agent was out at appointments all day and did not know the proof was there.

Why? There was a lack of communication between the marketing department and the sales agent.

 

Action: The marketing department will in future notify agents by email and text message when proofs for advertising are ready for viewing.

It is important to note that the 5 Whys technique does not actually address the customer’s complaint – knowing why is not going to make the advertisement suddenly appear. What it does is improve the systems and processes so the problem doesn’t arise for other customers.

Goal-setting

The 5 Whys is most often used in problem-solving; however, it can also be used effectively in goal-setting or determining the real reason why someone wants something.

It has been proven that the more powerful the reason for a goal, the more likely it is that we will achieve it. By drilling down you can get to the true “why”, which can help to build the motivation and desire to succeed.

Let’s look, for example, at someone who wants to earn $250,000 per year:

1. Why do you want to earn $250,000?

“Because I want to save $50,000 this year.”

2. Why do you want to save $50,000?

“Because I want to put a deposit on an investment property.”

3. Why do you want to buy an investment property?

“Because I want to build a passive income.”

4. Why do you want to build a passive income?

“Because I want to be financially secure in 5 to 10 years.”

5. Why do you want to be financially secure by then?

“Because I want to be able to retire.”

You can see that in this example you could drill down even further with six, seven or even more whys. The key is that through this process, as a manager or coach you can help the person to build a vivid picture of the future and this will motivate them even more to achieve their goal of earning $250,000 this year.

Summary

It is important to keep asking why until you have reached the root cause of the problem or issue, regardless of the number of whys you need to ask. If there is no concrete answer then it may be that there is more than one cause of the issue and all the causes need to be investigated before moving forward.

While the technique was designed chiefly for problem-solving, we find it has useful applications in goal-setting. Try it next time you are coaching a team member or when setting your own goals. When you put something on the list, try to get to the primary reason for wanting it. The greater your understanding of why you want to achieve something, the more real it will become and the more likely you are to achieve it.[/wlm_ismember]

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