A view from Dave Trott: The Five Whys
A view from Dave Trott

The Five Whys

When children begin to talk, one of the first things they continually ask is: “Why?”

And when you give them an answer, their response is: “Why?”

There seems no end to the number of times they can ask: “Why?”

Until eventually the parent gets fed up and just says: “Because I say so, that’s why.”

This doesn’t satisfy the child, but it does end the conversation.

However, there’s actually something very useful in this basic instinct for enquiry.

For instance, at Amazon, Jeff Bezos was meeting with the leadership team, when the safety manager explained that an employee just had an accident.

Bezos said stop right there. He walked over to a whiteboard, saying he was going to show them all how he wanted everyone to start thinking, using the Five Whys.

First he asked the safety manager: “Why did the employee injure his thumb?”

The answer was, he got it caught in the conveyor.

Then Bezos asked: “Why did he get his thumb caught in the conveyor?”

The answer was, he was trying to grab his bag, which was on the conveyor.

Then Bezos asked: “Why was he trying to grab his bag?”

The answer was, he put it on the conveyor, which was switched off, but it got turned on.

Then Bezos asked: “Why did he put his bag on the conveyor?”

The answer was, he used it as a table because there was nowhere else to put it.

That was it – Bezos had just demonstrated a simple (almost childlike) method of discovering the root cause of a problem.

So Bezos then had tables placed in all the areas near the conveyors.

Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota, developed the Five Whys.

It’s so simple it’s seemingly childlike – but Toyoda found this a strength, not a weakness.

The simplicity is what made it clear, memorable and practical.

The real strength of this method is that it doesn’t just provide a solution to the immediate problem, it identifies the root cause, so countermeasures can prevent it happening again.

Problems are often symptoms of deeper issues and this discipline stops people jumping to conclusions and getting locked into pre-formed answers.

The Lincoln Memorial was an illustration of this – it began to deteriorate and instead of jumping to conclusions, they used the Five Whys.

Q1) “Why is this memorial deteriorating faster?” A) It gets washed more often.

Q2) “Why does it get washed more often?” A) It has more bird droppings.

Q3) “Why does it have more bird droppings?” A) Birds are attracted to it.

Q4) “Why are more birds attracted to it?” A) Because it has more insects.

Q5) “Why does it have more insects?” A) They are attracted by the constant lights.

So they turned the lights on later and got an immediate 85% decrease in bird droppings.

We should use the simplicity, the discipline and clarity of the Five Whys in our job.

Our problems stem from the fact that we see simplicity as weakness and complexity as superior intellect.

So we jump swiftly to conclusions and miss out the gradual, logical process.

We would rather be wrong faster than right more slowly.

We are addicted to the appearance of intelligence, rather than getting the right answer.

Consequently, because we jump to conclusions, we miss out the possibility of interesting, unexpected or more creative solutions.

Because we jump to conclusions, we arrive at obvious, conventional answers.

Our ego values speed and the appearance of intelligence, which leads to flawed thinking.

We value the process above the result, the means above the end.

Which really isn’t very smart at all.

Dave Trott is the author of The Power of Ignorance, Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three