Five whys is an effective questioning technique to identify the root of a problem. The idea is that by digging at least five levels deep into the initial issue, you uncover the real reason behind the problem. The technique is very simple, yet powerful.

Unfortunately, many organizations have gotten proficient at asking “five whos” instead of five whys. Who is responsible for the project? Who authorized the action? Who did it? Who…? Who…? Using the five whos process in place of the five whys ultimately identifies an appropriate person to blame, but it doesn’t usually fix the problem.

Focusing on “who” and not “why” creates a culture of fear that limits effective learning. People who fear criticism and demotion, or worse, will be less willing to take risks, make suggestions, try new things, or accept responsibility. Such a culture of blame will slow down an organization and limit its creativity and responsiveness and, as I wrote in my recent post on megatrends, organizations need the opposite to thrive.

A quick way of detecting whether an organization has a culture of blame or learning is to listen to what senior managers say when a problem is identified. If they ask “who” rather than “why”, there is a good chance that a blame culture exists. Culture is part of the system and trying to change the system as an employee is, at best, almost impossible. W. Edward Deming is famously quoted for saying, “Only management can change the systems”. Leaders who want to unleash the power of the organization, improve responsiveness, and increase productivity; therefore, they just need to start asking “why” instead of “who”, five times.

What is the questioning culture of your organization? Is “why” or “who” the predominant question when a problem is identified? Is your organization focused on learning or assigning blame? As always, I would love to hear your thoughts using the comments below.

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2 Comments

  • So, I have the feeling of completing a part of the puzzle now: The Five Whys are a bearing point in “The Lean Startup” (yes, I’m late to the game on that one), ending with the thought of managing internal portfolios of startups … Which echos with my idea of the role of the new manager: Working ON internal businesses, not IN them. And with the idea of Agile Leadership. Kudos to this post 🙂

    • Hi Erik,

      Better late than never 😉 Interesting idea about the role of the new manager – like the idea of working ON and not just IN and look forward to learn more.

      Thanks for your comment and thanks for sharing.
      /Martin

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