Problem Solving With the “Five Whys”

The Five Whys of Problem SolvingHave you ever had a problem you felt you just couldn’t solve? Of course, that’s sort of a silly question, because unless you’re not human, you’ve no doubt been frustrated by what seemed like an implacable problem.

Sometimes, it’s because we don’t have all the facts, but at our other times our anxiety about the problem gets in the way of our thought process.

Solving a Problem

But I just learned about the Five Whys in a book I was reading, actually a mystery, of all things. So I decided to do a little more research, and found the Five Whys is a technique originally invented by Sakichi Toyoda that was used within Toyota to solve problems in the manufacturing process. This concept is used today in applying lean methodologies to solve problems, improve quality, and reduce costs.

Wikipedia gives this example:

The Problem: The vehicle will not start.

  1. Why? – The battery is dead. (first why)
  2. Why? – The alternator is not functioning. (second why)
  3. Why? – The alternator belt has broken. (third why)
  4. Why? – The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (fourth why)
  5. Why? – The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (fifth why, a root cause)

How Can You Use the Five Whys?

The Five Whys of Problem SolvingIf you’re a blogger, like me, you may have experienced the problem on being late with your daily, weekly or twice weekly post, whatever your schedule happens to be. That’s what is happening with me. Why was I able to publish early in the week and now I’m rushing to publish on Thursday or Friday?

Of course, I could just switch my schedule, but I’ve learned that I receive more traffic and comments if I post early in the week. Also, I’ve just joined the Google+ Blog to Build Your Business community whose members post their blogs on Tuesday.

So, I decided to try the Five Whys to get at the root of my problem.

The Problem: I’m late publishing my posts. 

  1. Why? – I have too many other projects/things to do (first why).
  2. Why? – I’ve over scheduled myself (second why)
  3. Why? –I like to do fun things that take up too much time (third why)
  4. Why? – It’s a way of avoiding the difficult task of writing a post (fourth why)
  5. Why? – I can’t think of a topic for my post (fifth why)

I bet you can identify with my real problem — identifying topics to write about. So, my goal for next week is to have a post written by Tuesday. Here’s a problem. I’m going away for a long weekend (a fun thing) and have client work to finish up by tomorrow (over scheduled).  Ha!! But I do have a topic. It will get done.

Have you ever used the Five Whys technique? How do you problem solve?

Leave a Reply


  1. Lisa — I agree that bouncing an idea off a friend can be very helpful. I’ve certainly done that myself. Going to a wedding on Cape Cod. Hope the weather is good!

  2. I believe that from time to time we all have used the 5 Whys even though we may not have done so formally. I have asked myself these questions many times, especially when there are tasks that I have not been able to get accomplished in a timely manner.

    I do feel that it is hard to critique ourselves, so many times the 5 Whys are kind of done informally in our minds as we think through what it is we have to accomplish or may be late accomplishing.

    I believe the 5 Whys are very important in our daily lives as well because it is a tool that can help to keep us focused on the task at hand. Thank you for sharing.

    • Nathaniel — I agree that we mentally go through this list but we don’t necessarily know that we may using the 5 Whys or a variation of the technique to solve a problem. I was glad to learn this a more formal way to go through the problem solving process.

      • Jeanette,

        Yes I like the formal technique a lot better as well. It helps to really keep us accountable. I bookmarked this post so I can go back and use these as necessary. Thanks for sharing them.

  3. Great topic about the five whys! I have heard about it before in relation to Toyota. And, thanks for linking our Community, by the way! I love this technique. I will have to use it. Getting my blog done “on time” is sometimes a challenge and I think I need to analyze why with this method. Appreciate you sharing this with us.

    • Laurie — My pleasure to link to such a vibrant community. The Tuesday deadline made me sit down and think about why I was becoming so tardy in posting to my blog. So thank you!

  4. Great approach, never heard of it before – thanks for sharing, Jeannette! I see how you can use it to find out why you are late with your posting schedule, although subjective.

    I think this approach would be very useful to a blogger to find the root of quantifiable problems, too – e.g. why your bounce rate is so high, or why traffic is increasing/decreasing, why you get less comments on Thursdays (maybe it has less to do with the day but more to do with the topics) and so on.

    Love the technique – can’t wait to put it into practice 🙂

    • Diana — let me know when you put it into practice. Would love to know how it works for you. Regarding bounce rates, even the most famous bloggers get bounce rates in the 75-90% range which is fairly typical for blogs.

  5. I loved your post. Finding out the whys. I will also agree with you that I get a better response to my blog if it up the first part of the week. Because I have a schedule in mind I make sure that I am ready to go each week. If I know I will not be around then I will have a blog ready to go so I don’t stress out over it.

    • Arleen — I’m with you. I just wrote my post for next week because I’m leaving for a long weekend. I’m trying to follow my own advice!

  6. What a wonderful example of laddering. Great idea to aim for 5 Why’s – it really works. What is great about this technique is it works on alll kinds of problems. Thanks for sharing!

  7. This is a very timely post for me. I’m going to use this to help me navigate my “bend in the road”. Thank you for a great nudge in the right directions. I just might find myself out of the weeds a bit faster for it. 😀

    • Susan — I hope so. Don’t like to read about your being so stressed. Not healthy and certainly not fun.

  8. What a neat technique! I think I’ve done this, but not quite as formally. It seems that by the time you get to the fifth why, you get to the actual problem. This technique can help anyone take control of a problem and figure out how to solve it.

    • Jennifer — Hope you had success using the technique. It really worked for me so I’m going to try it the next time I’m floundering around!

  9. Hi Jeannette. Great Post ! My companies all employed lean methodology and owed much to Mister Toyoda. I find the five whys technique useful in many aspects of life. As others have mentioned, before adopting the formal process most have used some version of it instinctively . Even as children the first answer to Why ? was invariably another Why ? and then often several more. As to your post topic dilemma, the third answer may hold the solution …. so often good ideas will crystallize subconsciously while we are relaxing …. so enjoy your long weekend… there are probably at least 5 reasons why it will be beneficial !

    • Paul — I never thought of that but of course children will always follow up their first Why with another Why. It’s instinctive. I find I do most problem solving in my head while I’m doing other things.

  10. Good luck with that Jeannette! I think I’m going to be running into this same issue this weekend.

    I write my posts for Monday on Sunday usually, sometimes I’ll do them the week before or on Saturday but usually I do it the day before. I’ve also been asked to write a guest post for someone and he just told me that he felt it would get more traction if he posted it next week! Yikes! So now I have two posts to write but we’ve now been invited to my brothers on Sunday for a belated Father’s Day celebration so there goes my entire day. Oh and I have to go grocery shopping this weekend too so personal things do happen to crop up that can put a big dent in our schedule. Now I have to frantically find the time to write two posts and I had planned to work on my product this weekend but that’s now totally out the window.

    So I know my why but how to get around it is the biggie. I wish you the best and keep your fingers crossed for me too! I will get them done one way or another. I’m just really weird like that!


    • Adrienne — I hope you got your posts done on time! I was away for a long weekend (wedding) so getting to reply to your comment now. I know that frantic feeling very well!

  11. What a great post! The Five Why’s technique looks and feel like a very effective way to reason through almost any dilemma! Now that you brought this to my attention, I think I kind of do this instinctively but I like the idea of formalizing the process…might speed thing up:)

    • Jacquie — Thanks. I do think some of this is instinctive but it doesn’t hurt to have a formalized process.

  12. What a great post! The five why’s technique looks and feel like a very effective way to reason through almost any dilemma! Now that you brought this to y attention, I think I kind of do this instinctively but I like the idea of formalizing the process…might speed thing up:)

  13. Hi Jeannette; I had never heard of the Five Whys before. It does sound like a simple focused way to express the problem and then solve it. My week was torpedoed by having to have to wisdom teeth pulled. I’m sure you will have your post ready by Tuesday. Take care, Max

      • HI, i’m feeling better yes. The one they pulled because it had to come out still hurts some. The one they took out to balance my mouth is completely healed and I will be writing at least one post about how you have to get yourself physically healthy to be successful in your professional life. Take care, max

        • Glad you’re better, Max. And what a great idea for a post. We do need to be healthy to perform at our best. Look forward to reading it.

  14. Great technique! Have to try the Five Why’s next time I feel something’s impossible:-)

    Applied for membership in the G+ Blog to build your business community. Sounds perfect for me as well. Thanks for mentioning it.

  15. Very good article Jeannette, I have not hear about this technique that I found very simple and useful. Will try to apply it myself.