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5 Why’s: Getting to the Root of a Problem Quickly

- by Ligia Brubaker, Certified SRA / Dibbles Institute Educator Have you ever had a problem that refused to go away? No matter what you did, sooner or later it would return, perhaps in another form, perhaps even more virulent, and definitely at the worst time possible!

Repeating problems are often caused by issues that go deeper than we intuitively know. We can sometimes temporarily improve a relationship with a joke or by avoiding the person. It may even seem convenient, but these methods often only address the surface of the issues and when we finally meet the other person again, our relationship is even worse than it was before.

Let’s take a look at the 5 Whys technique (also known as 5Y). This is a simple but powerful tool that was invented by Sakichi Toyoda, a Japanese industrialist, inventor, and founder of Toyota Industries in the 1930s. His 5Y method was applied in his production facility for years and it became popular in the 1970s. The Toyota company still uses this approach to solve problems today.

Toyota’s company has, to this day, a "go and see" philosophy. This means that its decision making is based on an in-depth understanding of what's actually happening on the shop floor, rather than on what the people in the offices or boardrooms think might be happening. Looks like it worked well for Toyota, so why not for us, right? This technique means nothing more than asking “Why?” five times in a row. Each answer becomes a new link in the chain and by the time you get to the 5th link, the problem usually solves itself very easily. Just a couple of notes before we look at an example: first, I need to warn you that people usually start getting uncomfortable or even defensive when they ask themselves the 3rd or 4th why, but trust me, it is worth the effort! Once that awkwardness or painful realization of the truth comes into light, the right choice becomes much clearer. Second, the 5 Whys method cannot be applied to ALL problems, but most life problems can be improved (if not solved entirely) by applying this method. The 5Y model is most effective when it is used to resolve simple or moderately difficult problems. This method will lead you to pursue a single track, or a very limited number of tracks, when complex problems could have multiple causes and have multiple tracks to follow. Example: Problem: The teacher gave me a really bad score on a test. First “Why?”: Why did the teacher give me a bad score? Answer 1: Because I was not as prepared as I should have been. Second “Why?”: Why was I not prepared enough? Answer 2: Because I went to John’s party instead preparing. Third “Why?”: Why did I go to the party instead preparing for the test? Answer 3: Because I want to be friends with the people John is hanging out with! Fourth “Why?”: Why do I want to be friends with them? Answer 4: Because they seem to be liked by everyone. I want to be liked by everyone.

Fifth “Why?”: Why do I want to be liked by everyone? Answer 5: That’s what makes me feel important. - Well, maybe I need to develop skills to be aware of my own value independent of my circumstances.

So basically, the student who got a bad score on their test realized that he was trying to make friends by becoming popular. Maybe the ideas that this student has about popularity and the importance of being popular are not really true, and maybe this student has set himself up for failure by associating with the wrong crowd.


Now, is all this learned merely by questioning a bad score on a test? Yes! That is the beauty of this method, and Mr. Toyota nailed it!!


There is, of course, another side to this coin that needs to go hand in hand with the 5Y method: HONESTY. Honesty is key when it comes to this method functioning. Why...? :) Well, I think I’ll let you answer that question for yourself… :)


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