Introducing the 5 Whys Technique of Problem Solving

What do you do when you and your team run into a problem?

Do you try to find the quickest fix to keep things moving? Get through and assume it was a fluke that won’t happen again? Shift blame to circumstances that were beyond your control?

There’s a better way to diagnose and even solve your problems. It’s called the five whys. 

What is the five whys method?

The five whys method is a problem-solving technique that helps you get to the root cause of a problem. Using this technique, you’ll uncover cause and effect relationships and ultimately uncover how processes and projects can be improved in the future.

The premise of the five whys is fairly straightforward: You’ll ask “why?” five times in a row. 

Maybe your team didn’t complete a major project by the deadline. Why? Because a team member was late submitting their piece of the project. Why? Because the end client was delayed in getting her the feedback she needed. Why? ...and so on. 

Sound like overkill? Or maybe something a curious toddler would do? We get it. However, this technique is surprisingly beneficial. 

When you and your team are brainstorming or problem-solving, it’s tempting to jump right into identifying solutions — without realizing you don’t quite understand the extent of the problem yet. The five whys technique keeps you and your team zoned in on the challenge so you can identify the most impactful solution. 

A five whys analysis is helpful for understanding the inner workings of problems, but it’s not without its flaws. Let’s cover a few pros and cons of this approach. 

Benefits of the five whys method

  • It’s simple to use: As far as problem-solving tools and analyses go, the five whys technique is one of the most straightforward and intuitive.
  • It uncovers the root cause: It pushes teams to go beyond their gut feeling or their first answer to think critically about the real source of their issues.
  • It encourages conversation: “Why?” is an open-ended question, which can encourage candid and valuable discussions between your team members. It can also expose them to roadblocks or areas of confusion they didn’t realize others were experiencing. 

Challenges of the five whys method 

  • It’s subjective: One team member might think your project was delayed because a colleague dropped the ball, while another thinks it’s because the original deadline was unrealistic. Conflicting opinions are common, which can present some roadblocks for the effectiveness of this technique. 
  • It’s limiting: Despite the name, you might need to ask “why?” more than five times to get to the heart of a problem. Additionally, there may be more than one root cause for an issue, which this technique doesn’t easily address or accommodate. 
  • It requires visibility: Your team is smart, but they don’t know everything. When asking “why?” you might run into some instances where the only answer you can come up with is, “I don’t know.” That means this technique is at a standstill. 

Why does the five whys technique benefit project management?

Ask yourself this: When’s the last time you had a project go off without a hitch? Everything went exactly according to plan, and you didn’t experience a single hiccup along the way.

Has it been a while? That’s normal. Collaboration is complicated, and even the most successful project managers will admit that even the most carefully-planned projects sometimes run off course. In one report from the Project Management Institute (PMI), respondents said that only 69% of their projects met their original goals—implying that 31% of projects fell short. 

When that happens, it’s tempting to grit your teeth, get through the muck, and then move on. However, the best thing to do is to reflect on those project problems, drill down to their root causes, and identify how you can fix those for future projects. 

That’s why the five whys technique is important for project management: It will help you and your project team identify how you can collaborate more effectively, proactively navigate risks and problems, and deliver more winning projects. 

The five whys example: How it applies to project management 

Want to see a five whys analysis in action? Let’s continue with the example that we set up at the beginning: 

The Problem: Our team was two weeks late in finalizing a client’s keyword research report.

  • Why? Maggie was late in delivering the section on keyword opportunities.
  • Why? The end client took too long to get the audience personas she requested.
  • Why? We didn’t get the information we needed at the start of the project.
  • Why? We don’t have a streamlined process for collecting the client information we need.
  • Why? We haven’t created a work intake form. 

Now you know what you need to do to ensure you don’t hit the same snag on your next projects: You need to create an intake form so that your team is equipped with the must-have information they need from your clients — before they even start any work. 

See how it works? By doing nothing more than asking, “Why?” five times in a row, you identified a relatively simple fix (particularly if you’re using a project management platform like Wrike that has dynamic request forms) that will yield huge results for your team and your projects. 

And you owe all of that to the five whys technique—proof that problem-solving methods don’t need to be complicated to be effective. 

Wrike gives you and your team visibility into your work processes so that you have an easier time leveraging the five whys method. Start your two-week free trial now.

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