The 5 Whys is a problem-solving technique originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda and used within the Toyota Motor Corporation during the evolution of the Toyota Production System manufacturing methodologies. It’s an iterative question-asking technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships of a particular problem, with the primary goal of the technique to determine the root cause(s) of a defect or problem.

The technique is typically invoked after a problem happens when we’re looking to find out how the problem could have been prevented. (Note, the focus is not on the people, but the process. No finger-pointing should be happening during a 5 Whys causal analysis.)

Here is a classic example of a 5 Whys approach from the National Park Service:

If you don’t have two minutes to watch it here’s a quick outtake:

  • Thomas Jefferson statue is eroding. Why?
  • Because the harsh chemicals used to clean it. Why are they used?
  • Chemicals are needed to remove the starling and pigeon droppings. Why are birds there?
  • They are feeding on spiders. Why are the spiders there?
  • They are feeding on midges (tiny flying insects.) Why are the midges there?
  • They are attracted by the dawn and dusk lights illuminating the statue of the statue are attracting tiny spiders which in turn attract the pigeons.

The solution used was to delay the lights by one hour, thereby missing the midges, spiders, sparrows, sparrow droppings, harsh chemicals used to clean up the mess.

While the 5 Whys might be familiar to you for root cause analysis asking “why did this happen?”, beginning a problem that has already happened. It is also possible is to use this same tool for uniting a team on a vision of a desired future state.

To do this, we begin at the end, with the desired future state in mind. The method is similar, but instead of “why did this happen”, we ask “why would you like this?”

We tried using this tool after a retrospective (where large batch sizes were causing the team headaches.) We began with “imagine that you’re regularly delivering to the customer new capabilities in small batch batch sizes!” The results proved not only beneficial for the team to focus on the capabilities they want feedback on each iteration, but also for aligning the organization on the value they we wanted to deliver: quality code, less non-value added work, and a better product all around.

Here’s an example from one table team:

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Please try a future state 5 Whys and share your stories!