Guest Blog: The 5 Whys

How to solve problems, not symptoms, using the 5 whys.

Are you tired of tackling the same problem? Are your team unmotivated and disconnected from your vision and mission? – If so, here’s a valuable tool, made famous by the founder of Toyota, that you can use to solve problems, motivate people and drive understanding deep within your team. Together we are going to discover what the 5 whys are, how to use the technique and apply it to scenarios.

What are the 5 whys?

The 5 whys was created by Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota in the 1930s and due to its effective simplicity, it is still widely utilised today, over 90 years later. The idea behind the 5 whys is to get inquisitive about your problem. Sometimes, we get caught up in tackling the symptom instead of tackling the real problem and root cause. Think about negative customer reviews, if you tackle them at face value you may only be fire-fighting a symptom instead of tackling the root cause of the issue. Further investigation of the bad review may lead you to develop an outstanding product and service. It doesn’t stop there however, consider poor behaviour at work, you can manage it within conduct policies but until you resolve the deeper problem (the poor conduct is just a symptom), you will keep having the same conversations until the person is let go. How would it feel instead to resolve the problem at its root? How much time and money would you save? Whilst the 5 whys was initially created to problem solve, we will discover that we can also use it to build an understanding and thus motivate people towards the mission.

Be mindful that whilst this is an amazing tool to use, it may not be suitable for more complex issues as one of the shortfalls of this approach is that it can lead to us having a single train of thought and focus on 1 possible cause. So if we are facing a complex issue or we want to consider multiple possibilities, a fish-bone diagram or alternative problem solving tool may be better utilised here.

How to use the 5 whys?

We can break the process down into 3 easy steps: identify, include and inquiry.


The first step we need to take is identification. What is the problem or symptom that is facing us? Here are a few examples:

1. In a call centre, customers keep hanging up whilst waiting to be spoken to. This is leading to a high abandoned call rate.

2. Online reviews for our product have gone down from 5 stars to 3 stars.

3. One of our team has stopped performing well.

4. Across the operation we have seen a drop in productivity.

Your Scenario: Write down a problem that you are having.

Now we have identified some ‘problems’ or more likely, the symptoms – we need to take the next step – Include.


How many times in business have you seen a senior Leadership team or Learning and Development team try to solve a problem without spending time with the people closest to the issue? What were the results? …probably not as good as they could have been if the right people were involved!

This step is all about including the people who are closest to the issue. They are more likely to answer the 5 whys more effectively than someone who is removed from the process making assumptions. So let’s take our above 4 examples and identify who we need to include:

1. In a call centre, customers keep hanging up whilst waiting to be spoken to. This is leading to a high abandoned call rate.

In this scenario, we have a few options – we can go to our customers and send out a survey for their recent experiences and ask why they hung up whilst in the queue.

Alternatively, we can speak to our front line call centre staff who answer the calls.

Maybe we could go to our Production team who monitor the inbound and outbound calls to identify any trends.

Sometimes, it can be beneficial to include a person from every department. Whilst we have identified the most obvious people to help us understand the issue, other parts of the operation may have valuable insight. For example – if we involved a representative from marketing, they may be able to say if a newly released promotion may have driven higher levels of inbound traffic.

2. Online reviews for our product have gone down from 5 stars to 3 stars.

Again, the first option could be to identify who recently purchased the product and release a questionnaire or create an outbound campaign to get the data.

Alternatively, could the factory that produced the product be spoken to? What has changed with the product or market?

Have the complaints team identified any trends?

3. One of our team has stopped performing well.

This one’s more forward – we need to speak directly to our team member.

4. Across all parts of the operation we have seen a drop in productivity.

Another straightforward one – issues are across the floor so a representative from each department would be a good start.

Your Scenario: Write down anyone you will need to speak to about the issue (it could just be yourself).

By identifying the people we need to include, its time for us to move onto the final step – Inquiry.


At this stage, we simply speak to our key people about the problem using the 5 Why’s technique. This is a fairly straightforward approach that we can liken to an annoying child, repeatedly asking “why?” when they are given an answer. The purpose though, is to sift through the symptoms to get a solid understanding of the actual problem.

As discussed earlier, this will help us to uncover the cause of a situation, can help build empathy, understanding and motivation at the same time. Let’s take a look at the 5 Why’s in action:

1. In a call centre, customers keep hanging up whilst waiting to be spoken to. This is leading to a high abandoned call rate.

Let’s say we went directly to our front line teams who are speaking to our customers. We explain that we are experiencing a high abandonment rate and ask why?

– “Customers we do speak to are saying the wait times are too long.”

Why is that?

– “The calls are one after the other, we aren’t getting a break.”

Why is that happening?

– “We don’t have enough people available to deal with the demand.”

Why don’t we have the resources?

– “Half the team is busy, either on an outbound dialler or in training for a new contract.”

Why are we not adapting to this?

– “Planning and prioritisation.”

In this example, we saw the simple use of the 5 whys to speak to a front line member of staff about their experiences and assumptions. Had planning, training and other departments been available for a group session, we may have understood more about the issue. On this occasion, we have identified that we may have a lack of adaptability from the planning team or an ineffective agreement between training and planning. As a business we can now make assessments based on:

– Do we need to stop the outbound dialler until we have enough resources? Is there a different time of day we can use the dialler?

– Do we need an immediate reaction or can we ride this out?

– Where in the planning/risk assessment process did this fall down? What can we do about it in the future?

– Is there a way to spread out the training over a wider time frame so we don’t lose as much resource all at once?

– Could we increase and promote our self-service options for our customers?

2. One of your team has stopped performing well.

Your performance isn’t where it used to be, why is that?

– “I am unmotivated.”


– “I don’t see the point in our performance indicators.”


– “They don’t highlight the value we add. They’re just statistics.”


– “They don’t acknowledge the hard work it takes to get there. I think we could have better targets.”


– “The right targets will drive the right behaviours and help us see the value we add.”

From this conversation, we can understand that our team members want recognition (phrases: highlight the value, acknowledge the hard work and see the value we add). They also believe that the targets are not aligned with the work they do. If as a Leadership team, we feel that the targets are aligned with the values and behaviours, we can use the 5 whys again to help our team member see the value in their targets – eg:

We need to have 90% customer satisfaction – Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

We need to be over 85% productivity for the week – Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

Drive these down using the 5 whys to help connect people to the goal and vision. When a person gets a solid understanding on why a goal or metric is in place, they can connect with it on a deeper level. The other consideration we can make is asking ourselves how we currently recognise the value our team add? Further, ask your team how they would like to be recognised. The 5 whys can effectively drill down to a problem, it doesn’t however find solutions for us. For that, we may need to engage in a different process.

Your Scenario: Ask yourself or others the 5 Whys to get to the core of the problem and find a solution.

Other scenarios to consider:

1. Online reviews for your product have gone down from 5 stars to 3 stars.

2. Across the operation you have seen a drop in productivity

3. One of your customers is irate.

4. Your competition has started out performing you.

5. One of the components in your product keeps failing.

6. Despite your best efforts to plan your day, when a new task lands on your desk you lose sight of your plan and schedule and you react to the moment.


The 5 whys is a useful technique that helps you identify the root cause of a problem, instead of fixating on the symptoms. Remember – most things we think of as problems are merely a symptom. Find the cause of the symptom (the actual problem) to see more effective outcomes.

There are 3 stages:

– Identify the Issue or symptom

– Include the Individuals closest to the problem

– Inquiry (use the 5 whys)

Once you have found the root cause, you can then begin to find solutions. Sometimes its great to work 1 on 1 with people and other times, it makes sense to use a mixture of people from different departments.

Closing questions:

How has the 5 whys added value to you?

What other problem identification tools do you use?

Once you’ve identified a problem, how do you find a solution? 


 This Blog was written by Simon Tickner from Develop the Edge

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