team building leadership organization development executive coaching expert michael cardus

The 5 Whys is a question-asking technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem. The primary goal of the method is to determine the root cause of a defect or problem. wikipedia

If you work in any kind of manufacturing and now most healthcare organizations you have heard of the ‘5 Whys’.

The goal of asking why 5 times is not to piss everyone off but to find the root cause of the problem and by finding the root cause we can fix the problem.

Does finding the root cause help us fix the problem?

With a technical / machine problem finding the believed root cause, fixing it and seeing if it worked is useful. The machine can have a part pulled out, replaced and evaluated.

When people are in the mix, the 5 Whys can create trouble.

Example…Frank needs Aamani to complete her audit reports accurately and on time.

5 Whys asked to Frank
  1. Why isn’t Aamani completing the reports correctly and on time? She is being resistant because she feels that I single her out for the reports being late.
  2. Why does she feel you single her out for the reports being late? Because I was promoted into a job she feels she should have, and she can control this part of her work.
  3. Why is she controlling this part of her work? So she can make me look bad in front of my supervisor and she can feel better about not getting the promotion.
  4. Why does she want you to look bad in front of your supervisor? Because she feel she should have my job and could do better than me.
  5. Why does she want your job and feel she can do better than you? Because she is a vengeful bitch who is insecure and needs to play power games!

That didn’t end well. It reinforced the problem and led to something that is not actionable. The reports are still late and inaccurate plus Frank and Aamani have no idea what to-do besides be mad at each other.

Possible Alternative What, How, When, Who, How Repeat

Move from 5 Whys and root cause or problem-focus to ‘Starting with what’ and solution-focused.

  1. What do you want Aamani to to do? To complete the reports of time with an accuracy rating of 90%
  2. How do you think that can be accomplished? I don’t know, I think she is angry because I got this promotion and she didn’t.
  3. When Aamani finishes her reports on time with the proper accuracy rating how will you act towards her? More relaxed, and kinder. I would say good-morning and we would be able to joke around.
  4. Has Aamani ever finished the reports on time and accurate? Yes
  5. How did that happen? Umm…It happened last month. I think we spoke briefly and I reminded her of the reports and then she needed my help with a case she was investigating.
  6. What did you do that was different that time? I don’t know…we were both talking and I reminded her then spent some time with her to complete a case.
  7. Can you do that again? Remind her!? Sure. Help her with something, it really depends on how busy I am.
  8. What is something you can try with Aamani that will be useful in getting the reports done on time and with an accuracy of 90%? Well, it sounds like a friendly reminder and some casual conversation may work.
  9. Okay, try that and let me know how it goes.

Now Frank has some action to take, an idea of what has worked in the past, and clearer understanding on what-to-do.

The ‘5 Whys’ can be useful. Identifying the possible root cause can get things started…the next logical step to create a solutions-bank.

I have found that it is easier and people on the team move with greater enthusiasm and collaboration when you ‘Start With What’ and determine the solution in the first step.