Just asking why five times will make you seem like a five-year old

Just asking why five times will make you seem like a five-year old

The “Five Whys” is an iterative approach to identifying cause and effect. The technique provides a structured approach to breaking through surface thinking or intellectual smoke screens in order to get to the real issue. The technique is based on the belief that the first answer to any question is not the root cause, but rather an overly rationalized version.

The tools:

  1. Whiteboard/Flipchart and dry erase markers (for group sessions), or
  2. Paper and pencil (for sessions where taking notes is more appropriate)

The process (team version):

  1. Write down the problem you are trying to investigate.
  2. Ask why the problem occurred and write the answer down.
  3. Using the answer provided ask why again and write the answer down.
  4. Continue until the team agrees that you have exposed a root cause.

Notes for facilitating using the “Five Whys”:

  1. Generally you can tell when you are approaching a root cause when you begin to expose emotion.
  2. Five is not a magic number. Root causes can be exposed by asking with fewer or more whys. If you are well past five whys and have not exposed a root cause, break down the problem into smaller chunks or restate the problem to make sure everyone understands what is being discussed.
  3. Just asking why five times will make you seem like a five-year old. Add context to the why using the previous answer.
  4. If you are using the technique and participants get frustrated with the pattern of questioning, change tactics.
  5. Sometimes “Five Whats” can be substituted for the “Five Whys.” I often use “what” when I am trying to establish a chain of events before looking or discussing why something occurred.


Problem: The team is still hungry after a “lunch and learn” session.

Why 1 – Why is everyone hungry?

Answer: No one ate during the session.

Why 2 – Why didn’t team members bring their own lunch?

Answer: Lunch was promised so no one brought their own lunch.

Why 3 – Why wasn’t the promised at the session?

Answer: The pizzas were delivered after the session.

Why 4 – Why were the pizzas late?

Answer: Joe ordered the pizzas a “little” late.

Why 5 – Why did Joe order the pizzas late?

Answer: Sid, the team leader, could not find the corporate credit card when the order was supposed to be made.

(Note: this is only sort of fictional)

The act of iteratively asking question is a trick to peel back the layers until a real (or at least real-er) answer is exposed. Finding the root cause of an issue makes it more possible to solve the problem. Without a getting a handle on the root cause it is possible to spend precious time and effort on a solution that won’t deliver results.