The Five Whys … or the Five Whats?

 A famous information gathering method developed by Sakichi Toyoda and used at Toyota Motors is The Five Whys.  It is a question asking technique that seeks to determine the root cause of a problem by repeatedly asking the question “Why” as each answer is given to the previous question. 

In the HR setting, this technique can be very helpful.  For example: an employee is frequently tardy.  The Q&A might go like this:

Q1:  Why are you tardy 2-3 times per week? A1:  My car always acts up.

Q2: Why does your car act up? A2:  Because it’s very old and I don’t keep up with regular maintenance.

Q3:  Why don’t you keep up with regular maintenance?  A3:  I’m not sure where to take the car. I live out in the country.

Q4:  Why don’t you do some research to find a good mechanic?  A4:  I’m not sure I really could afford a good mechanic.

Q5:  Why can’t you afford a mechanic?  A5:  My wife is very ill and we are spending all our discretionary funds on her medical care.

At this point, you have come to the heart of the problem (perhaps) and can decide where to go from there.  The number five is not a magic number: three questions may be sufficient and six or seven may be needed.  In addition, there may be multiple “root causes” for a particular problem so you may need to branch out and pursue different Q & A strings.  The principle is that by asking why repeatedly, you are more likely to get to the real cause of a problem. 

As an investigator and coach, asking questions is my business.  So the Five Whys is a very appealing technique.  However, in my experience, one often has to be more diplomatic and subtle when asking questions  and therefore use of a Why-Why-Why approach can backfire.  In fact, the word “Why” in and of itself can be a problem because it tends to make people defensive. 

 So where does this leave the Five Whys?  It’s still a great technique so long as you realize that the questions may need to be worded differently.  So in the above example, instead of repeatedly saying Why? you can use phrases such as “You are tardy 2-3 times a week. What is going on?”  “Do you know what your neighbors do about their cars?”  And so on. A judiciously used “why” now and again may be fine, but you don’t want it to be a battering ram.

In short, one can drill down in a nonthreatening way and still get to the root causes of a problem.  Asking “why” in an automotive factory may be just fine, but in the HR settings, use of other types of questions, partucularly those beginning with the word “what” may be more appropriate and productive. 

 What do you think?  ~Amy Stephson

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