The Five Whys


I first stumbled across the power of the word WHY after reading the book with the wonderful title: The Machine That Changed The World. You could be forgiven for believing that it is a science fiction novel when instead it is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s 5-million-dollar, 5-year study, on the future of the automobile – well that’s what is says on the front cover.

Somewhere in those pages the authors describe a fault-finding process first created by Sakichi Toyoda the founder of Toyota Industries. The process is known as the 5 Whys and it is amazing because of its simplicity. Before I talk about the 5 Whys I first want to touch upon the term: cause and effect also referred to as causality.

You see there is only one constant. One universal. It is the only real truth. Causality. Action, reaction. Cause and effect – The Merovingian / The Matrix Reloaded

Causality is the relationship between a series of related events, when one event causes a reaction that then produces another event. It sounds confusing so let me use an example:

A person contracts lung cancer (effect)

A person smokes 20-cigarettes per day (cause)

The key is the knowledge and understanding that the effect cannot exist without the cause. But Sakichi Toyoda wasn’t interested in cancer he was interested in automobiles so let’s use an example that he would appreciate.

The tyre is flat (effect)

The correct tyre pressure was not maintained as per the maintenance schedule (cause)

OK, so I don’t have a clue about cars! So without going all Aristotle on your arse I hope you can grasp the basic premise of Cause and Effect or Causality? Sakichi Toyoda understood the importance that effect cannot exist without cause and so it was effect that was causing his company to lose revenue. To solve this problem he created the 5 Whys process to help his employees understand the cause and effect relationship and identify the root problem (the birth of cause). No 100-page dossier needed on this amazing process because like I said earlier it is so simple.

If you have children then you would have come across the child who seemingly has their voice box stuck on the word WHY? You may find this annoying (I know I used to) but the child is asking the question to get to the root cause of understanding. This is the process Toyoda taught his employees to use to find root cause. They just kept asking the question WHY? Until they ran out of answers. Toyoda found that you could not ask fewer than 5 WHYS and find your root cause hence the name of the process.

  •  My Cupboard Has Just Collapsed

1. WHY? – Because there were too many books sat on it

2. WHY? – Because I put too many books on there

3. WHY? – Because I didn’t have anywhere else to put the books

4. WHY? – Because I didn’t own a bookshelf

5. WHY? – Because I didn’t buy a bookshelf

I use this silly example because as I type I am lying in bed and my cupboard is next to me. It has a great bow in the middle of it and one of the doors has broken. This is due to the weight of the books that I have placed on it. I was speaking to my Mum about it the other day and we were talking about how cheap and nasty the cupboard was, because it was falling apart, when in fact the true cause is not poor workmanship; it is because I am using it for something it is not designed to do. To fix the cupboard I need to buy a bookcase.

My cupboard has broken (effect)

 I didn’t buy a bookcase (cause)

5 Whys was created to find defects in assembly lines and today it is used to solve all sorts of business problems. I like to use it to solve problems in my personal life. Too many people do not understand the root cause of their feelings and emotions and when you cannot identify root cause you often expend a lot of time and energy fixing the wrong part of the process. A great analogy is to think about a weed growing in your garden. You lazily lop its head off and your garden looks great, but a few weeks later and the weed is back. Every two weeks you expend time and energy lopping off the head of the weeds and curse to the Weed Gods about your bad luck. All you need to do is dig a little deeper and rip out the root.

It is the root that is the problem; everything else is just a symptom.

Do you use a business process to enrich your personal life? What is it?


The inspiration behind this blog post is The Machine That Changed The World. There are direct parallels between the world of business and our daily lives. I believe that we can operate our own personal life in the same way a successful business is run.

I have an interest in seeing how far this goes? How many business processes can translate into making your life more enriched? The 5 Whys process is certainly one of them, so start using it to get to the root of your problems and start ripping them out of the ground.


Photos courtesy of Editor B (cc @

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