Remember when you were a kid and your response to almost everything was, “Why?”
It likely drove the adults around you crazy AND you may have been onto something.
In Six Sigma, asking “Why?” 5 times (or more) is a technique used to analyze a problem so you can find a lasting solution.
It encourages you to dig deeper with each Why so you can peel away the layers of symptoms to reveal the root cause of a problem.
When used at a non-critical moment to study a problem, the 5 Whys can be a fun and thorough way to tease out a solution that will have staying power.
What you’ll quickly learn is that the first reason you see for the problem is seldom the real reason.
It’s what I always say—it’s never the stuff, it’s always the stuff behind the stuff—this is another way to get through the story to an underlying fact that you can address to make lasting change.
And while it’s called the “5 Whys,” you may find that you’ll ask the question fewer or more times than five before you find the real issue creating the problem.
Here is a common illustration of the 5 Whys in action. We start with this problem: Your car won’t start.
- Why? – The battery is dead. (first why)
- Why? – The alternator is not working so it didn’t charge the battery. (second why)
- Why? – The alternator belt has broken. (third why)
- Why? – The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (fourth why)
- Why? – The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (fifth why, a root cause)
- Why? – Replacement parts are not available because of the age of the vehicle. (sixth why)
So you can see that if you stop with just the 1st Why, you’d likely get a jump and start the car and hope that driving it far enough or long enough would recharge your battery.
You may even decide to take the car in and replace the battery.
Unfortunately, that would be a waste of money and time.
Since what you would discover from asking why a few more times is that the problem isn’t really with the battery.
Benefits of the 5 Whys
- Helps you to identify the root cause of a problem.
- Lets you discover if there is more than one root cause of a problem.
- A simple tool you can use without knowing more about Six Sigma to cut through story.
When Is 5 Whys Most Useful?
- When problems involve human factors or interactions.
- In personal life when story is clouding your judgment and you’re feeling stuck.
- In business life whether you’re using Six Sigma or not.
How to Use the 5 Whys
- Write down a specific problem. You can type it up AND there is brain science that shows actually writing with pen and paper improves memory and functionality. If you’re using this technique with other people, writing it down also ensures that everyone is solving the same problem—not what they think the problem is or what they may remember from a conversation.
- Ask WHY the problem happens and then write an answer down below the problem.
- If the answer you just wrote down doesn’t identify the root cause of the problem from Step 1, ask Why again and write that answer down.
- Continue probing the problem using Step 3 until you (and/or your team) agree that the problem’s root cause has been identified. Remember, this may take fewer or more than five Whys.
Problem Statement: You are trying to leave for work and you can’t find your keys.
1. Why can’t you find your keys?
– Because I don’t know where they are.
2. Why don’t you know where they are?
– Because I didn’t put them in their home when I came home last night.
3. Why didn’t you put them in their home last night?
– Because I was tired and cranky and feeling rebellious.
4. Why were you feeling rebellious?
– Because my boss was giving me grief at work and I don’t want to be a robot.
5. Why do you equate putting your keys away where you can find them with being a robot?
– Because my mom would always yell at me to put my things away.
6. Why did your mom yell at you to put your things away?
– Because she was often late for work when she had to help me look for my things before school.
So now you can see that the root cause of your rebellion is based on a scenario from your childhood–only now it isn’t your mom you’re rebelling against.
At this point, you’re actually just hurting yourself and undermining your ability to function.
I’m betting your mom doesn’t really care anymore if you can’t find your keys.
Your boss probably doesn’t care either. S/he just wants you at work on time.
So if you value your job and your mental and emotional wellbeing, the next time you come home and decide NOT to put your keys in their home, you can remind yourself that the only person negatively impacted by this choice is you. In the moment it might feel good but in the morning, when you’re racing around looking for your keys, it will feel bad. And not just today bad, but old old history bad. Deeply bad. And it will reinforce the story that says you’ve always been disorganized and there is no hope for you to every change.
Which we know is actually just one of your 200 lies.
Of course you can change, and from that point of knowledge, not story, you can make a new choice–one that serves you today and breaks a pattern that may have been running many of your choices for years without your awareness.
One of the pioneers of professional organizing and productivity, Andrew Mellen is the best-selling author of Unstuff Your Life!. He travels the world speaking, teaching, and coaching individuals and global brands including the New York Mets, Genentech, American Express, Time, Inc. and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.