The Five Whys

Often when we’re faced with a problem, we want to jump to a solution right away. We’re fantastic problem-solvers after all, and that’s what we’re hired for, right!?

Well, not so fast. Usually, it’s better to pause for a moment and to take the time to reflect and investigate what the actual problem is. Rather than fixing the symptom, we want to address the root cause.

The “Five Whys” model was developed by Toyota to provide a framework for structured problem-solving and root cause analysis. Its core idea is to ask “why” five times when confronted with a problem. Each “why” and its answer gets us one level deeper and one step closer to the root cause.

Of course, five is an arbitrary number – some times you get to the root cause in three steps, sometimes it might be seven. In reality, you stop when you aren’t able to find a deeper cause anymore.

To apply the “Five Whys” framework to a problem, instead of jumping to a solution, you ask yourself (or the team), “Why did this happen?”. When you get an answer, you apply the same investigation again, “So why did that happen?”. Eventually, you will get to the root cause that requires your attention. You will not treat the symptoms but rather cure the root cause.

Here’s an example of how this could work:

Problem: “We are spending a lot of time and resources on getting computers connected to the network.”

  1. Why – “Because we need to go to user’s workplaces and computers to configure their systems.”
  2. Why don’t users do it themselves? – “Because networking settings are too complicated for users to set themselves.”
  3. (Why) what makes them complicated for users? – “Because they don’t understand IP settings and are afraid to change them.”
  4. Why do they need to understand IP settings? – “Because we haven’t upgraded to automated settings through DHCP yet.”

Root cause and solution: Invest in deploying DHCP, rather than scaling up helpdesk staffing.

This is a trivial example and almost too simple to ask four whys. However, often simpler makes it clearer.

For more historical context on the model, you can read up on our trusted source Wikipedia:

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