“Good leaders ask great questions that inspire others to dream more, think more, learn more, do more, and become more.” – John C. Maxwell
The 5 Whys: Going Deep to Solve Problems. While in graduate school I noticed one of my professors was visibly upset. When I asked what was wrong he responded, “Lavon, I’m giving them the answers and they haven’t figured out the questions.”
Faced with the need to make rapid decisions, leaders can fall into the trap of providing quick answers to complicated problems. While this approach often addresses symptoms, it rarely solves the core issue lurking much deeper. Remember, the presenting issue is NEVER the real issue! Finding this requires us to dig deeper to determine what’s really going on.
The 5 Whys, developed in the 1950s by Sakichi Toyoda and still used by Toyota today, is a questioning technique that helps you do this. As the name suggests, asking the question “why?” 5 times will cut through surface details and expose the root cause of the issue so it can be solved once and for all.
How Do I Use the 5 Whys
Step 1: Write it down. Writing the issue helps you visualize and describe it. This also will help your team focus on the issue without getting sidetracked.
Step 2: Write the answer below the problem. Discuss the cause of the problem and write the answer below the “Why” question.
Step 3: Dig deeper. If the answer you just provided doesn’t identify the root cause of the problem, ask “Why” again and repeat the process.
Step 4: Work for agreement. Loop back to step 3 until the team is in agreement that the problem’s root cause is identified. This may take fewer or more times than five Whys.
Here’s a simple example of how the 5 Whys Process works:
- Why did your car stop? Because it ran out of gas.
- Why did it run out of gas? Because I didn’t buy any gas on my way to work.
- Why didn’t you buy any gas this morning? Because I didn’t have any money.
- Why didn’t you have any money? Because I lost it all last night in a poker game.
- Why did you lose your money in last night’s poker game? Because I’m not very good at “bluffing” when I don’t have a good hand.
By repeatedly asking the question “Why,” you will help your team cut through layers of excuses and symptomatic issues to identify the core problem. After all, isn’t that what leaders do?
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