With the 5 Whys, our initial answers usually allow us to look at the most obvious aspects of a problem or situation. With every why, we dig deeper and deeper into the problem until we arrive at the root cause of an occurrence. Five Whys method is so in your face that it can be applied by anyone but yet is very powerful. The method is simply asking the question ‘why’ five times! It’s a technique to help you get past the symptoms of a problem, and to find its root causes. Simply ask ‘why’ up to five times during any problem solving activity to arrive at a solution.
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The beauty of the tool is in its simplicity. Not only is it universally applicable, it also ensures that you don’t move to action straight away without fully considering whether the reason you’ve identified really is the cause of the problem. Of course, it may take seven or sometimes even three ‘whys’ to peel away the layers that envelope any problem. So the important thing is to just ask.
The 5 Whys technique was developed and fine-tuned within the Toyota Motor Corporation as a critical component of its problem-solving training. Today, the method is used far beyond Toyota. It’s important to note that the purpose of the 5 whys isn’t to place blame, but rather to uncover the root cause of why something unexpected happened. Additionally, it helps create a solution so that the same issue doesn’t happen again.
The 5 whys tool can be used by individuals but better put to use in a team problem solving exercise. When a problem or situation comes up, a team session could help get to the cause of the problem. The benefit of a team approach is that you can involve the people who probably know most about the situation under consideration. A crucial aspect that the method rests on is a well-trained and experienced researcher.
Advantages of Five whys
1. Information sharing
When done within teams, it allows all team members to learn about the root cause of problems and how to tackle such situations in the future. It is a useful tool to build problem-solving competencies within team members as well.
2. The bottom of things
The methods supports digging deep into the problem and shedding its layers of complexities to arrive at a logical solution to the issue in question.
3. Team-work/active participation of a larger group
Team members feel invested into the solution as it is not dictated by one but deduced by the entire team by asking the crucial whys. It also helps bringing teams closer together.
4. Steps to address & eliminate the problem
The advantage of sharing this information widely is that it gives everyone insight into the kinds of problems the team is facing, but also insight into how those problems are being tackled.
5. Easy to implement
So easy to implement that can be practiced with great sophistication to yield meaningful insights.
Disadvantages of 5 Whys
1. Lack of participation from the experts
Some members of the team who may be aware of the solution may not participate from the fear of being judged.
2. Limited by the facilitator’s know-how
The method is limited by the knowledge of the facilitator as they are responsible to steer the conversation or may ask the irrelevant whys for arriving at the root cause.
3. Complicated to collate findings and deduce results
Different participants may answer the same why differently. This would result in some complications to consolidate all responses and draw an inference.
4. Need for an experienced facilitator
An experienced facilitator is crucial to the success of the exercise.
Think Design's recommendation
‘These acts were performed by experts. Do not try them at home’... How many times have we seen these disclaimer while watching stunts? Five whys is no lesser than those stunts because it takes a questioning wizard to frame these whys and it takes experience in knowing when to start and when to conclude.
Why did you come late to my class?
Because I got up late
Why did you get up late?
Because I went to bed late
Why did you go to bed late?
Because I was partying with my friends
Now you know the root cause! But hold it, it’s never going to be this simple! Users may not be honest in giving all the answers and using this technique can be counterproductive when practiced in groups. And finally, the fundamental purpose of Five whys is to dig deeper and get to the bottom of the issue at hand. It takes a lot of experience to navigate through this and extract the answers… and the chances that you really end up with meaningful answers is not predictable.
Get an expert on board and have a plan B.