The 5W1H of 5 Why

There is a wise saying that “Knowledge means nothing without wisdom to profit by it.” It’s not who we are, who we know or what we know, it’s what we do with that knowledge. We all have tremendous power to do good or ill depending on how we put our knowledge to use. Our minds are constantly gathering knowledge of all kinds, both intentionally and subconsciously. If we understand, we can begin to use this knowledge. Too often we focus on collecting knowledge in the belief that it will advance our cause, but face frustration because we lack understanding. If 5W1H is the pursuit of knowledge, 5 why is the pursuit of understanding. That is why asking “why?” is a most import habit for those of us concerned with making things better.
In the Rudyard Kipling “The Elephant’s Child” there is a poem that goes:

I Keep six honest serving-men:
(They taught me all I knew)
Their names are What and Where and When
And How and Why and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.

This may or may not be the origin of the 5W1H method for getting the details of the story. The five W are what, where, when, why and who and the one H is for how. I have a memory of an English class in which the 5W1H were explained as the questions a good journalist asks in preparing a story. These questions are also good for brainstorming and problem solving. But not all of the 5W1H are equal. In the case of problem solving we should care less about the who and more about they why.
This is so much true that we have something called “5 why” that replaces all questions in the 5W1H with “why?” to get to the root cause of a problem or issue. Like a good journalist, let’s explore the 5W1H of 5why.
WHAT: The 5 why is a process for getting to the root cause of a problem.
WHERE: It was first used at Toyota as part of their kaizen activity.
WHO: Taiichi Ohno is credited with saying, “We don’t need 5W1H, just ask why five times.”
WHY: He did this as a way of teaching people at Toyota to look beyond the obvious causes of problems to the underlying systemic root causes. By eliminating “who” as a root cause, blame and fear associated with making mistakes is removed. This is one way that Toyota system maintains the respect for people while focusing people’s creative ideas on how to eliminate waste from the process.
WHEN: Most likely Ohno said this sometime between 1950 and 1960, in the formative days of TPS.
HOW: The 5 why process works not with asking only five times. Rather it is a practice of persistently asking “why?” until we peel away the layers of apparent reality to the true facts. Not asking why, and instead believing that we know the answer, causes us to solve the wrong problems. Countermeasures based on false root causes result in tremendous waste of time and energy through bad policies.
Leaders need to be curious, question and seek root causes so they can take more effective action to solve problems at the root cause, rather than believe they are right and not ask why. Our brains are designed to filter out extra information, to ignore much of what goes on around us and to go with the path that feels right, rather than take time to question deeply. When this works it is called intuition, when it does not it is called confirmation bias. There may be developmental reasons for this related to a species’ survival in the wild. Yet we can’t afford to ignoring evidence that lead us to false paths.
Here is the rest of the poem from Kipling’s story:
I let them rest from nine till five.
For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
For they are hungry men:
But different folk have different views:
I know a person small–
She keeps ten million serving-men,
Who get no rest at all!
She sends ’em abroad on her own affairs,
From the second she opens her eyes–
One million Hows, two million Wheres,
And seven million Whys!

Not five, not seven, but seven millions whys! If that’s what it takes to get to the root cause of a problem, then those whys are are worth asking. Give those serving men no rest.

1 Comment

  1. Sridharan

    October 17, 2009 - 8:05 pm

    Every engineee in manufacturing should know.