Applying the Five Whys At Work

One of the best-known management models to come out of Japan is the technique called the Five Whys, and it should be part of your management armoury.

It’s a solid way of getting to the root of any problem you may have. When you have a problem, you ask the question ‘why?’ up to five times, by which time you should have reached the root of any problem you are dealing with.

Here’s an example:

Let’s say Fred is not performing to the standard you know he is capable of. You sit down with him and ask, why?

You find out that Fred has got too much work to do. Why has he got into this position? Because he is seen as someone who has capability in many areas and too many people ask him for help. Why has this occurred? Because the rest of the team haven’t been coached to deal with problems themselves.

And why might that be the case? Because the department is under-resourced and can’t spare anyone to coach team members. And why is that? Because we didn’t replace a key team member when she left.

Sometimes the reason is uncovered after two or three questions; sometimes it takes further examination to find the underlying cause. But the average it takes is around five levels of questioning.

Now that you have dug deep to ascertain the real root cause of why Fred is under-performing, you can identify what is within your control and what is outside of it. Is it possible for you to share out Fred’s workload somewhat? Does Fred need help from senior management to distribute his workload more efficiently? Could he do with some coaching himself to make him more aware of when he should say no to delegated work?

By finding out the real reasons, you can then identify how it can be approached and offer solutions that might have been missed if you simply apply normal processes to manage someone’s performance.

Try the five why’s next time you face a challenge and see if it opens up more possibilities for you.

Thanks again


Sean McPheat

Managing Director

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Mark-WilliamsMark Williams

Mark Williams is a learning and development professional, using business psychology and multiple intelligences to create fascinating and quickly-identifiable learning initiatives in the real-world business setting. Mark’s role at MTD is to ensure that our training is leading edge, and works closely with our trainers to develop the best learning experiences for all people on learning programmes. Mark designs and delivers training programmes for businesses both small and large and strives to ensure that MTD’s clients are receiving the very best training, support and services that will really make a difference to their business.