One of the key skills every business owner has to master in order to run a successful business is problem-solving. In fact, we shell out big bucks to find people who can resolve our business challenges. Maybe the root of your problem can be uncovered by asking “Why?”.

An Introduction to the Five Whys

A few years ago, I learned about the 5 Whys while researching business content for a ghostwriting client of mine.   

Legend has it Sakichi Toyoda created the 5 Whys as a simplified way to find out the root cause of any problem plaguing Toyota’s manufacturing system.  Since catching on in the 1970s, the 5 Whys has become one of the most widely-used methods of identifying cause-and-effect relationships, and ultimately detecting root defects.

How and why the Five Whys process works

Start with the problem at hand. Once you have the problem firmly in mind start your line of questioning. Let’s consider as an example, a freelancer recently lost a paying client because she didn’t deliver an important project on time. The 5 Whys process would go something like this:

  • Why did I lose the client?  I lost the client because I missed the delivery deadline.
  • Why did I miss the delivery deadline?  I was late with the market analysis.
  • Why was I late with the market analysis? I didn’t finish the previous client’s analysis when I thought I would.
  • Why didn’t I finish the previous analysis when I thought I would? I’m perpetually behind schedule.
  • Why am I perpetually behind schedule? I think I may be underestimating how long each project will take to complete.

You can see how the 5 Whys can be a useful problem-solving tool. It works by identifying the root cause of the malfunction in any process. In business, just as in your health, it’s useless to treat the symptoms when you won’t address the underlying problem. The best solution, more often than not, is to uproot the real cause of the kink in your plan.

Now, the 5 Whys is not, by any stretch of the imagination a be-all end-all solution for problem-solving. But this process can be a good starting place to help you quickly and easily distinguish causes from effects and problems from symptoms.

Are You Digging Deep’ Enough?

There are time when you can use the Five Whys to arrive at a root cause that really isn’t the root cause. How so? By not asking the right questions or not asking enough questions. When that happens, you risk arriving at the wrong conclusion. For instance, look at the following series of questions posed in response to a Project Manager being replaced as the lead on a project.

  • Why was I replaced on the project? I was replaced because the VP was no longer convinced I could deliver on this project.
  • Why was the VP’s faith in me shaken? Because I didn’t know the client changed the deadline for our proposal.
  • Why didn’t I know the deadline had changed? I missed the big emergency meeting
  • Why did I miss the big meeting? I missed the big meeting at work that day because I had the flu.

Now, if we were to stop there, some of the gentler souls would think it was a crying shame.  Nobody likes getting the flu. The statement, “I missed the big meeting at work that day because I had the flu” sounds like something that’s beyond your control, right? You got sick and missed an opportunity.  But just ask another few questions.

  • Why did I get the flu? Because my immune system was compromised.
  • Why was my immune system compromised? I hadn’t really slept since my old college roommate arrived at my house a few days before.
  • Why haven’t I slept?  We’ve been hanging out.

There’s a big difference between being a helpless victim of circumstance and being the guy who misses the big meeting because he stayed up all night partying. Turns out the flu wasn’t the reason you were removed as the lead on the project.  Getting the flu was a symptom of the real underlying problem – lack of discipline.

Without minimizing the real work of solving business challenges, you can probably implement the 5 whys technique to deal with some of your less complex issues. I actually find it works best for me when I pinpoint a weakness in my soft skills ( as in “Why am I yelling at the waiter?” and arriving at, “Geez, I’ve got to reassess my lead generation strategy. My clients are driving me crazy.”).  

So try it the next time you’re in a pickle –whether personal or professional – and see if the 5 Whys process helps you get to the heart of the matter.