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The Five Whys

The Wall Street Journal ran an article last year about how to run your family like a business.  Once you get past the potentially off-putting juxtaposition of business and family, it includes some great ideas — things like weekly meetings and a family mission statement.  This translation from a business organization to a family makes sense; businesses have worked for more than a century to run efficiently, build community, and solve complex problems — things we need to do in our families and in our lives.

One example from the business world I’ve been using in my life recently is a problem solving method called the “5 Whys.”  Originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda and used within Toyota Motor Corporation, this method is overwhelmingly simple: ask “why” five times when you’re trying to solve a problem.  This magic number of five is generally enough to get to the root cause of a problem.  Here’s the example Wikipedia uses to describe this in the manufacturing world:

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)

In our personal lives, this exercise can be a great way to get “unstuck” when you’re feeling frustrated and unsure exactly why and in turn, what to do about it.  Let’s look at an example of how it works in life.

PROBLEM: I can’t get out of bed in the morning to do my workout.

  1. Why? – I feel exhausted. (first why)
  2. Why? – I’m going to bed too late. (second why)
  3. Why? – I’m working late into the evening every night. (third why)
  4. Why? – I’m leaving work at 5pm every day to pick up my kids. (fourth why)
  5. Why? – My kids need to be picked up at 5pm.

This leads to an interesting result.  Would it be possible to solve the issue of waking up early by finding someone else to pick up the kids a few days a week, helping me finish my work at the office?  This solution may not have been evident at face value.  Let’s look at another very basic example:

PROBLEM: I feel anxious is my life right now.

  1. Why? – I’m stressed out about work, and I bring that stress home. (first why)
  2. Why? – I can’t decide what the next step in my career should be. (second why)
  3. Why? – I am afraid of making a mistake and choosing the wrong thing. (third why)
  4. Why? – I’ve chosen the wrong thing before. (fourth why)
  5. Why? – I have listened to my mind, but not my heart.

In this case, the answer to “why #4” leads to a more honest view of why the anxiety might exist, which in turn, can bring about a solution.

The 5 Whys is a great tool to have in your toolkit as you navigate life.  It can apply to almost any problem, it takes five minutes to do, and it might just help you make the shift from stuck to “unstuck” — designing a life you’re proud of.

And unstuck is a beautiful place to be.


Photo by BuzzFarmers, via Flickr Creative Commons.



3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Always enjoy your loving, logical posts. – Wanda

    June 6, 2014
  2. Thanks for sharing! I used this technique yesterday and it helped me get to the root of my thinking. It’s easy to walk through using your hand.

    June 9, 2014

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