Children learn a lot and quickly because they are curious. Children don’t stop asking questions, yet as adults we often do. The Five Why’s is a popular, simple, and powerful means to create that childhood sense of wonder and curiosity in your team. It is also a great means to do something called a root cause analysis.
The technique is said to have originated with Toyota, although the exact lineage is a little unclear. If you’ve spent any time around a 5-year old you know this technique by heart.
It starts out like this: Ask ‘Why?’ about something you encounter. Then repeat it for every answer you get up to or past five times.
The Five Why’s is a type of narrative interrogation that allows you to go deeper into understanding the motivations and actions of someone. The Five Why’s is a way for us to learn about what is behind a choice or decision so we can design better for it.
How to Use Five Why’s
The exchange below is based on a real-life example of using this technique. The context was part of a training activity for graduate students with the focus of inquiry on why students chose to pursue graduate studies in design. The program in question largely attracted mid-career professionals who were coming from a variety of different fields to study part-time while they completed their jobs.
Person 1: Question Asker (P1): Why did you choose to enrol in this graduate program?
Person 2: Question Answerer (P2): Because I generally have an interest in design and really wanted to do something that allowed me to be a little more creative.
Commentary (C) : This is the first exchange and focuses on the key question under consideration. Person 2 will respond with whatever they feel is appropriate and it is in this first response that Person 2 will find an aspect of the response that they want to focus on. The next ‘Why’ provides a chance for P1 to inquire about some aspect of this first answer to delve a little deeper.
P1: Why is doing something creative important to you?
P2: I don’t have a lot of opportunity to do creative work in my job. I feel I just go through the motions with my job; it’s all very routine. I feel rather bored and unchallenged and I was hoping this program would help that.
C: In this exchange, Person 2 has introduced that creativity is an important part of their motivation to go back to school. The
P1: Why do you want to be challenged in your work?
P3: I have a desire to accomplish something. I used to have dreams that I would make a difference in the world and do work that excited me and brought me joy. If I’m honest, I feel like I chose poorly with my career. I did what I was good at, not what I wanted to do.
C: We see here that this learner is addressing larger issues — much closer to the root cause.
P1: Why was your choice a poor one?
P2: I kept pursuing what others expected of me. I do what others ask of me, not what I really want for myself. I saw this program and thought that this is something that’s important to me, not others.
C: What we see here is that the respondent is opening up about their reasons and connecting them to their career choices. Here, the questioner has many additional avenues to pursue
P1: Why was it important to do what others wanted?
P2: I always felt I had to please people, especially my parents. They had a tough time and worked so hard to support our family. They were labourers — they didn’t see creativity as something that you could make a living at. I didn’t want to let them down. I felt perusing a creative career would do that and be seen as frivolous.
C: For this learner the choice to pursue graduate studies in design meant far more than a career change — it was a bold personal decision.
It’s important to note that the pursuit of a root cause can yield some surprising results and that requires some caution. The above exchange got very personal quickly and this can yield some uncomfortable information for some participants. It’s important for facilitators to note that participants should only answer things that they feel comfortable with and should always have the right to pass on a cycle (e.g., do three Why’s instead of five).
Alternatively, there are times when responses do not get detailed and it may take more than 5 cycles to find something closer to a root.
With an understanding of those things that are closer to the root of a situation, the more options there are to design a program or service that meets more substantive needs. Using our example, the graduate program might seek to find ways to market its graduates in ways that can highlight the practical application of creativity. This would fit well with this students’ situation and more underlying motivations and needs.
The Five Why’s are simple to use and powerful in what they reveal. They can bring out your inner five-year old, too.
We can help you ask Why? What? How? and When? as part of our design process. Let us help you — contact us and we can help you implement this method in your work.