The 5 Why Exercise: The most valuable time you’ll spend today


When was the last time you asked yourself, Why? Not just once, but 5 times? In a row? First of all, let’s clear the air. Purpose is a loaded term. We say ‘purpose’ and people start wincing at the thought of needing an answer for the meaning of life or defending why they decided to go into banking instead of becoming a social worker. Well, don’t worry, keep reading – this post isn’t nearly as lofty, unless you want it to be.

Purpose: the reason for doing something. It’s that simple and that complicated. Just ask, why. We don’t often turn the lens on why. We go to work, do the things, participate in meetings, take care of our families and do it all again the next day. Even when we do ask “why”, we don’t pause long enough to see if we get a quality answer. Enter the 5 WHY exercise. A technique of root cause analysis originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda, is an integral part of the Toyota Production System, now famous for the emphasis on continuous improvement. Repeating WHY five times, not only helps understand the problem, but also sheds light on the solution.

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The 5 Whys: It goes like this

Pose a why question (1st why) / Answer the question

Ask why (2nd why) / Answer that question

Ask why (3rd why) / Answer the question

Ask why? (4th why) /Answer the question

Ask why? (5th why) /Answer the question

The 5 Whys in practice

It’s brilliant simplicity in action. Why? because our first answer is always obvious, only getting to the surface of the issue. The 2nd and 3rd go a little further, but the deeper you go, the further you get to the uncovering real meaning behind things and where that leads you.

We use it in almost every strategy session to dig deep into why we are all there in the first place. Strategic planning, product positioning, organizational development, innovation – we have yet to find a situation where 5 Whys doesn’t fit.

We conducted this exercise in a strategic planning session for a Board of Directors for a non-profit organization. Industry leaders from healthcare, financial services, consumer packaged goods etc, all with different skill sets and styles coming together to plan the long-term future of the organization – a future facing significant change and challenge. In order to navigate the next few years, this board needed to align on what drives them personally and collectively to guide them.

Enter the 5 Why Exercise. The answers were all different, but the overall impact was the same and went something like this:

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The individuals on this Board, leaders in their own industries are responsible for the financial and operational performance of their organizations and, like many of us, spend most of their days thinking, planning and problem-solving. When asked the question, why, we answer with the same type of thinking/planning. The discussions get really interesting at the 3rd ‘why’. The emotional/personal motives start to come out. While each board member had different answers, they all lined up to a very personal motivation. This becomes the glue that holds them together as they navigate the future. If we can stay connected to WHY we’re there in the first place, everything else we have to do becomes infinitely more clear.

The power of doing this as a group is 1) the shared experience of digging deeper into the real drivers and 2) identifying the common ground. These are the tools needed by organizations and teams to set a clear path to the future. You really need to try it – the next team meeting, planning session, project kick off.

Or stop what you’re doing right now. Ask why you’re doing it?

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All of a sudden, invoicing is important. Better get back to it.

The questions we ask shape the reality of our experience. What you look for, you will find. It’s time to ask why, young Jedi.

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