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The Five Whys - Identify problems fast

Most of us stop asking “why” after the age of 4. But maybe the four year olds have it right. Maybe we need to ask “why” more often.

Why? It's probably the most important question in creativity, design thinking, marketing and branding.

Why? Because when you understand the ‘why’ everything else falls into place. It sets vision, guides strategy, sense checks during the process, helps solve the problem and entices the end user or customer to buy.

Why is the reason. Why is the meaning. Why is everything.

With that in mind it’s amazing to consider how many teams forget to ask this question. As a solo consultant, unfamiliar with my client’s worlds, I find I spend most of my time like a four year old - asking “Why”. I’m on a mission to get people to ask why more often and in this post I’d like to introduce you to a workshop technique you can use to do this effectively.

The Five Whys Technique The technique is simple. At the start of the workshop get delegates to articulate a problem statement. Then, get them to answer ‘Why’ it is a problem 5 times.

Take this basic and simple example:

  • I keep tripping over. Why?

  • I can’t see where I’m going. Why?

  • Because it is dark. Why?

  • Because it is nighttime. Why?

  • Because the sun sets

We have now identified the root problem. Obviously in this case nothing can be done about the sun setting (or can it??) so a solution will need to be sort to generate light from another source. This would solve the initial framing of the problem of tripping over.

Ok - extreme example I know but hopefully it goes to illustrate how the process and technique works.

In a workshop scenario you would get delegates to split into groups to answer each ‘Why’. Then come back together, share and select the most accurate answer.

This also works well when you are working solo. It forces you to get to the root of a problem swiftly, boiling everything down into a simple answer. Of course this does not solve the problem but knowing the problem is the beginning of solving it. The next step is to then conceptualise around solutions to the root problem (but that’s another story for another time!).

Sakichi Toyoda


Now although I love to ask Why I cannot take credit for this technique. I did not invent it. Turns out that Sakichi "King of Japanese Inventors" Toyoda did. Sakichi was born in Japan in 1867 and died in 1930. He was a principle mover in the Japanese Industrial Revolution and founder of the Toyoda group of companies - his son developed one of these into what became Toyota.

Toyota is known for lean methodologies. Getting to the root of a problem in order to find a solution to it swiftly is key to this.

So this is a little nod to Sakichi.

I hope you enjoy asking ‘Why’ more and being better equipped to solve problems in the future.

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