Getting to the root issue: the 5 Whys

“Why daddy?”

If you’re a parent, you are no doubt familiar with this dreaded question. But here’s the reason it’s to be feared — it never just stops at the first “why”!

I have a sweet little 4-year-old daughter. On a regular basis, our conversations follow a pattern something like this:

“Sorry honey, I don’t want you to play with this toy.”

“Why daddy?”

“Because it isn’t safe to play with.”

“Why daddy?”

“Because it’s broken and has a sharp edge.”

“Why daddy?”

“Uh, because daddy accidentally ran over it in the driveway.”

“But why daddy?”

“Uhhh, because daddy forgot to check the driveway before he pulled out.”

She caught me! She’s not satisfied with my first answer. She doesn’t know she’s doing it, but she’s pushing me past superficial answers to the real root causes.


The 5 Whys: a tool to get to the root issues

Turns out what children know intuitively has been formalized as technique to get to the root cause of problems called the “5 Whys.” It was created in the lean manufacturing revolution lead by Toyota in the 1980’s to identify root causes of production defects.

Here’s how it works: ask “Why” 5 times. That’s it. The genius of it is that every time you answer the next “Why”, you are forced to go deeper into the underlying causes of the issue. Eventually you get past the effects and get down to the root cause.

The architect of the tool, Taiichi Ohno, described the benefit of the 5 Whys method:

“the basis of Toyota’s scientific approach . . . by repeating why five times, the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear.” (source)

Here’s an example of how that might work in your organization:

Revenue is down. (Problem)

  1. Why? — We have fewer donors than before. (First why)
  2. Why? — We haven’t been acquiring enough to offset donor attrition. (Second why)
  3. Why? — We haven’t been investing enough in acquisition. (Third why)
  4. Why? — The board isn’t comfortable with that level of investment in acquisition because they see it as low ROI. (Fourth why)
  5. Why? — We haven’t done enough to convince the board of the long-term value of acquisition, and the multi-year consequences of not investing enough. (Root cause)

I used this example because it plays out all too often in non-profit organizations. And in my experience, most people stop at #3. They gripe about how they can’t get enough to invest, but don’t ask the next couple “Whys” to get down to the real root issue — that decision makers don’t fully understand what they are being asked to invest in.

5 Whys also works well with process improvement — that’s what it was designed to do. Do you see a pattern of issues? Are your schedules way too long? Try the 5 Whys today.

As always, I’m happy to answer any questions you might have — email me at or tweet me at @daveraley.