Ask why five times to answer tough questions

When my sons were toddlers they drove me crazy with never-ending why questions. Why is the sky blue? Why are you a girl? Why does it snow? Why is spaghetti called spaghetti?

As adolescents they’re still at it, although the questions are less about the world around them and more about their own needs and desires. Why do I have to go to bed? Why do we have to learn French? Why can’t I play video games all day? Why do I have to brush my hair? Why do I have to wear a hat and gloves? (That last one is routinely asked when it’s minus 20 outside).

As frustrating as they are in my personal life, I’d like to see more people ask why questions in a business setting. When things blow up, break down or just plain fail, you need to ask why, lots of times to find out what really happened, why it happened and how you can ensure it doesn’t happen again. It’s not enough to ask why only once or worse still, not at all. When your customers are disappointed, your employees are disgruntled and your partners are walking away, there is a reason and it will reveal itself if you ask why at least five times.

The system of five whys

The technique was invented by Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota and has since been co-opted by many leadership systems including Kaizen and Six Sigma. Here are some simplified scenarios to show how it works:

Scenario 1 – A new marketing manager has been hired and is getting briefed by her VP.

New manager: Why is there no budget for online advertising?
VP: Because those campaigns don’t work for us.

New manager: Why don’t they work for us?
VP: Because we don’t have any strong online assets.

New manager: Why don’t you have any strong online assets?
VP: Because we don’t have anyone with digital experience.

New manager: Why don’t you have anyone with strong digital experience?
VP: Because we can’t attract or retain employees with that skill set

New manager: Why can’t you retain employees with that skill set?
VP: Because they would rather work for our competitors

New manager: Why would they rather work for our competitors?
VP: Because our CEO Is afraid of change.


Scenario 2 – An online retailer has hired a consultant to find out why their returns are higher than the industry standard.

Consultant: Why do your customers return your products more than they return your competitors products?
Employee: Because the product didn’t meet their expectations.

Consultant: Why didn’t it meet their expectations?
Employee: Because it didn’t work the way we said it would.

Consultant: Why didn’t it work the way you said it would?
Employee: Because we’re having a quality control issue with one of our manufacturing facilities.

Consultant: Why are you having this quality control issue?
Employee: Because the person who looks after that relationship isn’t good at vendor management.

 Consultant: If he isn’t good at vendor management why is he in the role?
Employee: Because he’s been here for 30 years and it’s too expensive to let him go.


Getting to the root cause

In these situations, it took five or six “why” questions to uncover the root cause of a problem. The marketing budget doesn’t account for online advertising because the organizational leadership isn’t on board with a digital strategy and therefore hasn’t made it a priority. The customers are returning the products because the organization has a flawed approach to talent management and enables ineffective employees to lead critical divisions.

Does this mean the research phase is over and the problem can be solved immediately? Not at all. Not all problems have a single root cause and this line of questioning has only addressed one issue. But the five whys system has revealed a lack of knowledge, systemic barrier or workplace culture that prevents the organization from succeeding.

If this method is so effective why doesn’t everyone use it? Simply put, not everyone has something to gain from identifying the root cause of a problem, especially if they are the root cause. Many organizations don’t encourage this kind of questioning, especially from front-line employees. Some people have built entire careers on ambiguity and fence-sitting and are threatened by direct questions. Some leaders mistakenly believe that asking why leads to unfair finger-pointing. But the five whys system is not meant to be a witch-hunt; it’s designed to reveal faulty processes that could, by extension, be affecting everyone’s ability to do their best.

Ignorance might be bliss but in life, in relationships and in business, if you don’t ask why, how can you ever move forward? Until you peel back the layers and reveal the root cause of a problem, you will continue to make decisions based on erroneous data and wonder why nothing ever gets better. The heart of an issue may not be pretty but it’s the only place where you can actually make meaningful, lasting change.

So, the next time you need to find out why something has gone horribly wrong, channel your inner toddler and ask why till you’re satisfied.

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