The Five Whys as a Practical Tool for Problem Solving

Julie Entwistle, MBA, BHSc (OT), BSc (Health / Gerontology)

Being fully aware of a situation requires reflection and inquiry.  Yet, often what we see and feel on the surface is not necessarily what is truly going on.  Think of those times where you have become upset at your spouse, child, or parent to later realize that what you thought were upset about was really grounded in something else.  I know personally, I use long walks with my dog and music to try and understand any sources of discontent.  I find my walks enlightening and always try to ensure that I don’t speak too soon about a problem until I have taken that time to reflect.

At a recent seminar, we discussed the value of using the Five Whys to develop awareness.  This technique is grounded in the manufacturing industry to find the root cause of a problem.  For example, a conversation might go something like this:















Why did a screw get missed on that tire?



That was missed by John.






Why did John miss that?



The line is moving too fast and he is missing every 15th tire.






Why is the line moving too fast?



We have deadlines that we are not sure we will make.






Why can’t we meet the deadlines?



We have three staff off right now.






Why are they off?



They are injured and have not been replaced.



By the fifth why, the relationship between the current problem and the root problem is determined.  Now, consider the use of that in daily life.  Why am I angry?  Because the kitchen is a mess.  Why is the kitchen a mess?  Because the kids ate and didn’t clean up.  Why didn’t they clean up?  Because they were going to be late for practice.  Why were they going to be late for practice?  Because they forgot about the practice.  Why?  Because it was not written on the calendar.  So, we can get angry at our kids for not cleaning the kitchen, or realize the root cause was our fault when we failed to use the strategy (the calendar) that helps them to manage their time.

Try using the Five Whys in practice when trying to solve a problem.  See if that helps you to truly succeed in understanding situations, getting to the root cause, and being able to make change to prevent the problem from reoccurring.