Using the Five Whys in Cases

Five Whys

(credit: Velaction)

The Five Whys is a technique used to figure out the root cause of a problem. You’ve probably used it unwittingly many times in your life. The general idea is when you come across a problem, keep asking “why” it exists until you narrow things down to a process that is malfunctioning or nonexistent. If you find a malfunctioning or nonexistent process, all you need to do is redesign the process (or implement one) to handle the problem in the future.

The one thing to keep in mind is that you want to ask your customer / client why they think the problem exists, as opposed to speculate yourself. Other than that, it’s a pretty useful technique and not utilized enough in cases, from what I’ve seen.

How to Use the Five Whys in Cases

In many cases there is a point when you get some strange piece of information. What separates the professionals from the amateurs is that the professionals dig deeper into those strange pieces of information until they find out what’s really going on. Many times, the case is cracked right there. If not, at least you’ve learned something useful.

Let’s use an example. There’s this really good case about a Canadian Logging Company that is more successful than its competitors. You’re brought in to figure out why, and to see if this success is repeatable, and scalable.

If you ask about costs you find out that costs are 5% lower than competitors. Most people then ask further about why that is, and you learn that the company’s wood is leaner than competitors and is thus easier to process. Most people stop there.

If you ask further why their wood is easier to process you learn that its because of the trees they have access to on the plot they lease from the government. If you ask why they chose that plot over others, you find that it was assigned to them, and there’s no way to predict how easy the wood is to process before getting the lease. Bottom line, the company’s costs are lower because they got lucky, and this isn’t repeatable or scalable.

If you ask about revenues you find out the companies average prices are higher. Not everybody asks why. But if you do, it turns out they sell both big logs and small logs. The big logs are more pricey, and their ratio of big to small logs is greater than competitors.

If you ask why they sell relatively more big logs than competitors, you find out that its because of the trees on their plot. If you ask why they chose that plot, you get the same answer as above (it was assigned to them). Again, it seems like the company’s success is more luck than anything else.


Use the Five Whys in cases to help you get to the root cause of whatever problem you’re facing.

Why? Because it allows you to get to the heart of the matter quicker.

Why? Because usually, people don’t pursue things that they don’t fully understand, and thus take significantly longer to crack cases.

Why? Most people don’t like to admit they don’t know or understand something, its risky to go down a blind alley, and its easier to ignore ambiguity than to tackle it head on.

Why? It’s difficult to overcome our own fear of the unknown, take risks, and embrace ambiguity.

Why? We’re a production of evolution, which hardwired risk aversion and conservativeness into our nature.

Why? The risk averse were more likely to pass on their genes (though probably less likely to have outmoded success).

Why? In the caveman days, taking a substantial risk means you probably died and weren’t able to pass on your genes, whereas your risk averse brethren survived and were able to pass on your genes.

Why? Constraints on food, clothing, shelter, internal politics within tribes, harsh winters, etc.

Well, that was more than five whys but you get the idea 🙂 (we finally got to a process related answer, so now we can stop!).


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