The 5 Whys: Secret Technique to Get to the Bottom of Any Issue

by Dec 4, 2018Leadership

It can be annoying, but it gets results

It’s all too common to be having a conversation with someone only to have that person take a very black-or-white stance about some situation or decision that they are recommending. The problem with this is that it can be difficult to understand why that person has taken such a firm position. It would be helpful to know why they might be taking such a strong stance in order to help problem-solve (something we leaders love to do!).

This is especially true for a business leader. When someone in your organization comes to you with a decision or a suggested course of action, it can be extremely valuable to understand the real issues that might be driving that decision. But it also might be difficult to get your employee to explain the root cause of why they want to make that decision.

The next time you run into a scenario like this, it’s time to peel back the onion using a technique that’s come to be called “The 5 Whys.” I didn’t invent the concept, it’s been around for a while, but I have found it to be particularly effective at getting to the bottom of any issue.

For example, let’s say that one of the executives on your team comes to you with a proposal to raise prices. Rather than comment on the actual details of the proposal, you could start off with a single question: why do you think we need to raise prices (the first Why)?

That question will elicit a response that begins to peel back the cover on the issue. Let’s say the executive responds by saying that you need to raise prices to improve profitability. That then opens the door to asking your second “why?”

You can see how this might unfold as you continue to probe the reasoning behind the decision. Ultimately, after you have asked “why?” for the fifth time, you should be able to expose the root cause of the issue.

In our scenario, perhaps it’s learning that your key suppliers have raised their prices–which has put pressure on the company’s profits, leading your executive to ask for a price raise.

While that might still be a viable option, you’ve also uncovered other courses of action by driving to the root cause of the problem. Instead of raising prices, for example, which might annoy your customers, you could instead go back to the negotiating table with your suppliers to get a discount.

If you hadn’t asked why you might have found yourself going down a path that could have hurt the business because you didn’t truly understand what was causing the pain in the first place.

Again, the point is that by peeling back the onion by using the 5 Whys, you can better make decisions that address the core of the problem instead of just the symptoms that might be easier to identify.

A word of caution, however: some people can find this technique overly annoying and probing. It can make some people feel like they’re under investigation–especially when they first start using it. Anyone that has a 3-year-old child will tell you that this can get pretty annoying.

But it’s been my experience that if you stick with it, it creates behavior changes in your people where they begin to expect to be asked why–so they come prepared with the answers.

That becomes a win-win for the organization and your people since they begin to do a better job at digging at the root cause of problems before jumping to conclusions.

So if you’re having issues understanding why your organization makes decisions, put the 5 whys to work–and you’ll begin to see issues of all kinds in a whole new light.