Reality Check: Wisdom from Whys

The “5 Whys” is a technique that’s sometimes used in workplaces to analyze and solve problems. We use 5 Whys because it can help us figure out the “the root cause” of a problem.

The root cause is like the little seed from which a problem starts. If you can find and correct that root cause, then you truly solve the problem; it won’t be back to bother you again.

Correcting the root cause is different from simply dealing with the symptoms of the problem. While correcting symptoms can have value, it doesn’t ensure that the problem won’t come back.

The 5 Whys technique is straightforward. Define the problem, and then ask, “Why is this happening?” Pretty simple, eh?

However, answering that first “Why” is just the beginning! 5 Whys doesn’t give up after that superficial first response. Ask again, “Why is this happening?” Keep going, to 5 levels of asking why, or until you have uncovered what appears to be the fundamental root cause of the issue.

What’s good for the workplace can be useful elsewhere in life too. Let’s look at how 5 Whys might work for an everyday difficulty.

Betty feels guilty whenever she has a moment to herself. She just can’t seem to relax. Let’s try 5 Whys.

Betty, what’s the problem? “I feel guilty and stressed whenever I’m not busy. I just can’t seem to relax.”

Why is this happening? “I keep thinking of all the things that need to be done in the house.”

Why? “Because if I don’t do them, they won’t get done.”

Why? “Because no one else ever steps in to do them.”

Why? “Well, I suppose because they don’t see the need to do them.”

Why? “I guess they don’t understand why it’s important to have these things done.”

This is an interesting final “why.” Why? Because this result can be addressed. A lack of understanding is a lack of information, and Betty can provide the information to others to show why the tasks are important.

There are many other paths this “why” line of questioning could take. For example,

Why? “Because no one else ever steps in to do them.”

Why? “Because I don’t ask anyone.”

Why? “Because I like to do them myself; that way I know they are done right.”

Again in this case, Betty has uncovered something that she could address if she chooses to do so. She can decide to continue doing all of the tasks herself, to her standard of perfection. This carries with it the consequence that she will likely continue to feel stressed.

Or, Betty can choose to ask for help from others, which may mean that tasks will be done differently than she would do them. While she can’t control whether others do the tasks to her standard, she can control whether or not she will choose to find the result acceptable.

A helpful follow-up question for Betty is, “What do I really want? Do I want free time without guilt? Or do I want all tasks done to my standard?” It is her choice.

What if you uncover a root cause that’s out of your control? Or at least, that seems to be outside your control? In that case, the next helpful question may be, “How?” As in, “How can I find a way to be satisfied with this reality?

Why? How? What do you think?

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