‘The five whys’ is a mental exercise that has a number of different uses. Often it is recommended by self-help gurus and others to help you find your ‘calling’ by getting to the root of your aims and objectives. Outside of this context though, it can also be a highly effective tool for solving and preventing a lot of problems in a range of settings.
Why ‘The Five Whys’?
‘The Five Whys’ is a technique originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda in the 1930s. Sakichi was an industrialist and inventor and one of the key figures responsible for Japan’s industrial revolution in the 1930s. Thus, when he originally posited this tool, it was with the intention of it being used to solve problems in the workplace.
Basically the process involves identifying a problem and then asking the question ‘why’ five times to come to the root cause and potentially a solution/preventative measure.
Here is an example:
Problem: Your client is threatening to cancel their order
Why: Because you delivered the work late
Why: Because you were waiting for a report to come back
Why: Because it wasn’t finished in time
Why: Because the printer was out of ink
Why: Because not enough printer ink was ordered
This then gives you a potential solution (find another way to print the report) as well as a way you can prevent the issue from arising again in future (make sure to order more ink in bulk each time).
How to Use the Five Whys
Using the five whys then essentially means returning to the type of thinking you might have used as a young child: questioning everything. While this may have annoyed your parents, it’s actually a very effective way to diagnose problems in the workplace and in every other area of life.
To use them, all you need to do is to phrase the problem as you see it. From there you then ask ‘why’ and give a direct answer. You repeat this process five times until eventually you get to the ‘root’. Stay on topic with your answers and remember that the goal is to ‘dig deeper’.
It’s worth noting too that ‘five’ is really an arbitrary number. In fact you can ask the question as many times as is necessary and you may discover that two or three is enough, or that you need to keep going for longer. Sometimes if you keep going you will find that there are multiple issues at hand and multiple fixes along the way.
Try using the five whys next time you have a problem and you might just find it sheds new light on the situation!