The Five Whys - it is still the best tool to identify strategic intent

cascading the 5 whys
I was first introduced to the Five Whys when I was interning at Swiss manufacturing company Diethelm in 1989. It was the year when the Toyota Production System and its just-in-time (JIT) philosophy became big around the world. I was tasked to JIT-ise one line of their manufacturing system. Obviously, when you want to change from a batch process to a JIT process, a lot of the way things are being done will be called to question. We had to conduct work studies on production people who were not happy being filmed. We needed to see how material flowed through the system and where the bottlenecks would be. Ultimately, we needed to tackle the die changes so that we could get to the ideal batch size of one. As we did all these, we had to uncover why people did certain things and we were introduced to yet another Japanese innovation, the Five Whys technique.

The technique is simple to use: ask why five times and you will get at the root cause of the issue. So, if your computer won't start, for example, you could use this to identify the underlying reason:

Why doesn't your computer start? Because there is no electrical power to it

Why is there no electrical power? Because the power unit is burnt

Why is the power unit burnt? Because it has not been replaced regularly

Why has it not been replaced regularly? Because the maintenance contract lapsed

Why has the maintenance contract lapsed? Because there was a budget cut

So, there was a deeper cause of the problem than the simple power unit burning out; it is a systemic issue due to budget cuts and cutting back of preventive maintenance.

It looks easy, doesn't it? Yet, it is not really so.

One of the most important elements of strategic thinking is to be intent focused (see article Making a Big Decision). Indeed, one cannot become strategic without understanding the overarching intent; more than just the local intent. By applying the question, "Why is it important to you..." five times, one can uncover the real intent of a decision, and from there, derive the right options. Done correctly, the right decision would quickly become apparent. Unfortunately, having worked with the Five Whys over the past 25 years, I have come to realise that it is not as easy as outlined above.

The problems of using the Five Whys

The problems are not with the process itself but how people use it.

1. Staying on the periphery

The Five Whys is useful when there is progression into the root cause. Each iteration should lead the strategic thinker down to the next level, and then the level after that. Unfortunately, we have found that people tended to stay within one level, answering peripherally instead of causatively. Let me give you an example. If the question "Why doesn't your computer start?" was answered as, "Because there is no light on it," is actually a peripheral answer. It didn't really answer the question and provide a reason. Many people tend to stay at this level, not venturing to provide causative answers.

2. Explaining rather than probing

"Why is it important for you to meet your KPIs?" "Because this is required of me." That is explaining the previous answer rather than diving deeper into it. Many people tend to maintain that level of thinking because they may be embarrassed by the real reason (because every decision has a personal element to it, even a professional decision) or have not thought deeper into the issue before. Either way, by keeping at that level of thinking, the Five Whys process will remain orbital, going in circles at the most superficial level.

3. Preconceived notions

Everyone has their idea of why things are happening one way or another. These preconceived notions prevent one from looking beyond their frame, choosing to justify their idea rather than to look deeper at the root cause. This can be both confusing and frustrating to the people who are applying the technique to help the person identify his/her real intent.

How do we overcome these?

Here are a few suggestions...

1. Understand that "Five Whys" is a misnomer

It is understood that most issues require five Whys to get to the root cause. In my experience, it seldom is so. Some situations are so clear that the intent can be articulated in just one why. "Why do you want to increase your income?" "Because I want to find ways to meet my mortgage payments in 2 years' time." It doesn't get any clearer than that, and doesn't require any other whys. Other times, because of the problems outlined above, even 8 whys still leaves us orbiting just one plane. This brings us to the next suggestion...

2. Have a "Five Whys Champion"

If you truly want to apply strategic thinking in your organisation, appoint a Five Whys Champion. He/She is one person who intimately understands the process and can see whether the thinking is explaining rather than probing; staying on the periphery rather than progressing. I have been using the Five Whys for 25 years and I know intuitively when people are not saying what they have to say; and I challenge them to dig deeper for their response, many a times to frustration by the other party. But after a few rounds of Whys, we break through the hurdles and get to the real intent. That is when the Aha! moment kicks in. We will uncover the traits of the Five Whys Champion in another post, but suffice it to say that the champion should be experienced enough to look beyond what is being said and demand greater clarity.

3. Test the intent

Don't take the responses of your counterpart at face-value. If you accept what is being said, especially if the responses are circuitous and orbital, you will not get at the main intent. Instead, keep probing and when you think you have arrived at the intent, test it by turning it on its head. Here's how. If you had started the process by asking, "Should we invest in Cambodia?", and the intent was, "To grow mid-term topline results", then ask, "If there is somehow another way to achieve mid-term topline growth without having to invest in Cambodia, would you take that?" If the answer is "yes", then you know you have arrived that the main intent, but if it is "no", then you'd have to repeat the process.

4. Frame it with success factors

Lastly, the intent can still be loosely defined. To increase mid-term topline growth is rather vague. We need to understand that better. Hence, we need to articulate SMART goals to structure the intent so that we all understand what that looks like, and how we are going to get there.

The key to successful strategic thinking

One of the main perspectives of strategic thinking is looking ahead and if we cannot articulate the intent of our decisions clearly, we will ultimately make the wrong one. Hence, the starting point in any strategic thinking project is to express the intent so distinctly that there is no ambiguity as to what we are trying to achieve. Otherwise, you might just be giving a rock to your child when he asks for bread.

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