Bring Your Inner Toddler to Work: The Five Whys

There is something that most toddlers do that is a good business practice. They ask “Why?”. At a certain stage they ask why to just about everything.

“Johnny put a coat on.” says Mom.

“Why?” ask Johnny.

“Because it is cold outside.” Mom replies.

“Why is it cold outside?” queries little Johnny.

And so it goes for the parents of a toddler. This is probably preferable to the stage where they say “NO!” to everything. Yet I can see where this gets tiring. Unless Mom is a meteorologist she is going to run out of answers about what causes the weather. All little Johnny wants is to get to the root cause of the need for a coat. He may view the coat as a good thing or he may view the coat as an inconvenience, but he really wants to understand the reasoning behind the need to wear that coat.

It seems that no matter how patient our parents were with us during our ‘Why’ phase we often lose that sense of curiosity. That sense of curiosity can really help guide us. What I am referring to here is a tool referred to as ‘The Five Whys’. Consider using ‘The Five Whys’ for root cause analysis and also to help really understand the reason behind your project. Let’s take a quick look at both uses.

Root cause analysis. You and the team know there is a problem, yet the problem could stem from multiple issues. This is a perfect time to start with what you know and work backward to the root cause.

We delivered product to our customer on the due date and we did not go over budget, yet they will not hire us again. WHY won’t they hire us again?
The product we delivered did not meet their expectations. WHY didn’t the product meet their expectations?
The customer states that functionality is missing. WHY does the customer state functionality is missing?
The customer has a requirements list that does not match the list we used. WHY does the customer have a requirements list that differs from ours?
Our initial project manager left the company and there was no clean transition to the new project manager. The new project manager thought he had the right documentation. WHY did a change in project manager lead us to use the wrong version of a document?

I am going to stop here because I know you can see how to use this tool. You can also see that sometimes it will take more than five whys and sometimes it will take fewer than five whys. It is important to keep going until you find the true reasons behind the problem you are analyzing. Of course you may find more than one actionable reason. In the example above you are probably tempted to find out why we do not have good configuration management or version control on our documents AND you may also want to know why the new project manager did not do some type of comparison or audit or review with the client to make sure that everything was in order AND you might wonder why this issue did not surface until the product was delivered.

As mentioned above another use for ‘The Five Whys’ is to help understand the purpose for your project. If you really know why you are leading your team to meet a specific goal, you can set a vision and point to that vision to help keep everybody walking the same path. As with root cause analysis (and this really is another type of root cause analysis); you start with the end and you use your why questions to work backward.

We have committed to expediting this project for our new business partner.
WHY are we expediting this project for our new business partner?
Our business partner came to us with an emergency and if we cannot expedite delivery for them they are going to lose one of their critical contracts.
WHY did they have an emergency which required us to expedite?
Our competitor was providing this service to them and did not meet the deadline.

Now I am going to stop here. You see where this might lead. This might be an opportunity for your company to acquire business that had been going to one of your competitors, which brings more revenue and more work to your organization.

You probably already have team members who look at you and say, “And why are we doing this work for this customer right now?” That is a good thing; they can help you get started. Don’t discourage the why questions. You personally do not have to answer every why. This is a team effort. You can make the why questions fun and part of your team culture. Invite your team to act like kids and question why, why, why, why, WHY?