5 Whys

Use of the 5 Whys can help most managers and business owners become more successful.


Consider this typical business problem: Despite hard work, long hours, and lots of money spent, a business is not growing in the way the owner or leadership need or want. (Ideally, this problem is defined more specifically with a solid target in mind. But, even if it's not, systematic problem solving will help get better results.)

When faced with a situation like this, do you or your managers tend to ask "What do we do next?", or do your conversations center around "Why is this happening?"

Most tend to want to do something. The great ones pause to figure out what to do. This happens either formally or informally using the word "why". The 5 Whys as a tool gives structure to this way of thinking.

There is nothing fancy here. The difference is subtle. But the results can be huge.

You begin by asking "why". Then ask it again. And again. Usually at least five times. Sometimes more.

Your business is not growing like you need or want.
  • Why? Sales are 10% less than last year.
    If you stop here, you might decide to spend more money on marketing.

  • Why? Dollars per sale is off 10%.
    If you stop here, you might decide to raise your prices.

  • Why? Customers are buying fewer items per transaction.
    If you stop here, you might discount items (or bundle items with a discount).

  • Why? Customers are spending 20% less time in the store.
    If you stop here, you might decide to do something with the physical layout of the store.

  • Why? Customers don't quickly find what they need and leave.
    If you stop here, you might experiment with merchandising formats.

  • Why? More than 50% of the time, customers aren't offered assistance finding items.
    If you stop here, you might take the (annoying) approach of having employees shout "hi, or welcome to _______" the second the customer walks in the door.

  • Why? In the past 6 months, you have had 80% turnover in your staff.

Corrective action: Create standard work around training for customer service, product knowledge, and customer problem solving. Track per employee sales and provide feedback to staff on performance.

It took more than 5 Whys, but hopefully you can see how the result and corrective action changed dramatically the further the root cause analysis went. Not unusually, this approach yielded a more measurable and lower cost solution to implement.

Good problem solving in business often requires good communication. This technique starts the conversation and keeps it going in a non-threatening way. As you can see in the example above, even when the root cause was related to staff performance, it focused on a process that could easily be corrected. There is a reason why this technique is called the 5 Whys and not the 5 Whos.


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