The Five Whys – A Tool For Every Researcher’s Toolbox

Why?Posted by Ray Poynter, 13 January 2020


The most important step in answering any problem is to correctly define it in the first place. If you do not know what the problem is, you are unlikely to recognize the answer when you see it. One key tool in defining the real/key/underlying problem is a technique known as the ‘Five Whys’.

The Five Whys method was developed in the 1930s by Sakichi Toyoda at Toyota. The thinking behind the technique was the need to get to the root cause of a problem, rather than focusing too much on the consequences of the problem. As well as still being used by Toyota, five whys has become a major part of movements such as Build/Test/Learn and Design Thinking.

A simple example of the Five Whys

Perhaps the best way of describing the Five Whys is to show a simple example. You get to your car and the car won’t start. What is the root cause?

  1. Q: Why won’t the car start? A: There is no electricity reaching the starter.
  2. Q: Why is no electricity reaching the starter? A: The battery is flat?
  3. Q: Why is the battery flat? A: Because something is draining the power?
  4. Q: What is draining the power? The car radio.
  5. Q: Why is the radio draining the power? A: there is a loose wire in the radio.

If we had finished the process after two questions, we would know the problem was the flat battery. This might have resulted in a us charging the battery, or replacing the battery, which would have given us a temporary fix to the problem. However, the new battery (or the newly charged battery) would soon be flat.

Applying the Five Whys to business insight problems

Too many insight problems move from stakeholder request to solution with too little time and attention being spent on defining the underlying problem. Let’s consider a typical scenario.

A stakeholder asks you to do research into customer satisfaction in the context of her hotels.

  1. Q: What do you want to know? A: I want to know what the key drivers of satisfaction are?
  2. Q: Why are you asking that question? A: Our occupancy rates have been falling and we need to tackle the problem?
  3. Q: What do you already know about the problem? A: Our new customers figures are OK, our shortfall is amongst repeat visitors.
  4. Q: Do you know which customers are the main problem? A: Yes, our big shortfall (compared with the competition and the past) is with business travellers.
  5. Q: And what do you want to be able to do, once you have the results? A: X

Note X might be:

  • Run a marketing campaign to increase repeat visits.
  • Create a loyalty programme for business travellers.
  • Create a training/management programme to improve our performance in the key areas that impact repeat bookings.
  • Revise our rates and channels to increase repeat visits.
  • Change our stock of hotels (buying and selling assets) to improve our fit to the market.
  • Other, or some combination of any of these.

When your contact does not know the answer to the why questions

When I explain the Five Whys method to researchers, they often comment that their client is reluctant or unable to answer these questions. They might be reluctant because they or the organization is secretive. They might be unable to answer the questions because they do not know the answers (somebody else may have asked them to run some research without actually defining the problem properly).

The ideal solution is to work with the person commissioning the research to answer these questions. Sometimes this will work, sometimes it won’t. If I can’t get clear and relevant answers from the person I am dealing with then I start an iterative process:

  1. Try to answer the questions myself to identify the underlying problem.
  2. Design some research that will answer the problem I have defined.
  3. Show the client/stakeholder the questions I have asked myself, the answers I have assumed, and the outputs that I will be able to generate.
  4. Ask the client/stakeholder whether these answers seem reasonable and will the outputs meet their needs.
  5. If YES, move forward. If NO, use the feedback to repeat the process.

It is not magic and it is not a panacea

The Five Whys is a useful tool in the toolbox, but it is not always relevant, it won’t always work, and you do not necessarily need to use exactly five ‘whys’. If your client has asked you implement a questionnaire that she has used before and which she is happy with, then you are probably going to do exactly what is asked for. If the focus of the research is to provide the test in an agile Build/Test/Learn process, then the research may be more about researching simple questions quickly, to help discover the underlying problem.

When you are asked to tackle a problem, look at it and assess whether somebody has already done a process such as Five Whys. Try to think beyond what has been asked for, towards what is needed.

Want to find out more about ‘Why?’

Join Webinar

‘Why?’ is at the heart of research, which is why NewMR is pleased to by hosting a sponsored webinar on Understanding the ‘Why?’ and the ‘Why Now?’ with Stephen Cribbett, the founder can CEO of Further.

The webinar will be broadcast on 30 January at 10am London time. Register to attend this free webinar by clicking here.

Join Ray Poynter and Stephen Cribbett as they explore the importance of the ‘Why?’ and ‘Why Now?’, show how these can be researched, and share case studies highlighting best practice and illustrating how Further can help you access the Why and Why Now.

One thought on “The Five Whys – A Tool For Every Researcher’s Toolbox

  1. Sounds like an interesting talk. This must mean you aren’t going to be at the QRCA conference in Austin which is that Weds/Thurs/Friday – where there will be so many “whys’ discussed and answered! Oh well, maybe the worldwide conference in May in Brussels will get you to join us!?

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