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How to Use the “Five Whys” Technique in Performance Consulting

Posted by Marsha Weisleder on 2/6/17 8:00 AM
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Oh, to be able to solve a problem! Not always an easy task, yet probably one of the most valued in your organization. I'm sure we've all heard this phrase before, "Don't come to me with a problem, come with the solution." So, where do we start? As change agents within our organizations, it’s up to us to ask questions and present possible solutions to performance gaps.


In our Consulting Skills for Trainers workshop, we show you how to apply a range of analysis tools and techniques to get to the root cause of a problem. Why the root cause? Well, here's the thing. If the cause is wrong, I can promise you that the solution will be wrong, as well.


One of my favorite techniques is called “Five Whys.” It was developed by Toyota in the 1970's when they were investigating equipment failure and workplace safety incidents. The strategy is to ask "Why," multiple times—five times, more or less—to get beyond superficial symptoms to the actual cause of the problem. Now you might be thinking, "Did a 2-year-old make up this technique?" Rest assured, they didn't. You see, asking why, is the basic act of probing and problem-solving and is a great way to determine the causes of performance gaps.


This exercise begins with the course leader stating the problem and then asking the question, "Why?"— as in, “Why did the problem occur?” The group brainstorms an answer and the facilitator again asks, "Why?" It generally takes five rounds to get to the root cause, but it is perfectly acceptable to ask less or more, depending on questions and the group’s needs.


Here's an example that is often used to illustrate the “Five Whys:”

Facilitator: The Washington Monument is disintegrating. Why is it disintegrating?

Group: Because they use a harsh cleaning solution which is eroding the marble veneer.

Facilitator: Why is a harsh cleaning solution being used?

Group: To clean the vast quantity of pigeon poop that is deposited on it.

Facilitator: Why is there so much pigeon poop?

Group: Because there are a lot of pigeons around the monument.

Facilitator: Why are there so many pigeons around the monument?

Group: Because there are a lot of spiders and pigeons eat spiders.

Facilitator: Why are there so many spiders?

Group: Because there are a lot of gnats and spiders eat gnats.

Facilitator: Why are there so many gnats?

Group: Because they are attracted by the bright lights around the monument at dusk.

Solution: Turn the lights on later.


By using this technique, we could get to the root cause of the problem, one we might not have uncovered otherwise, and offer the best solution. All part of helping our clients in establishing a foundation for accurate performance assessments so they can provide the best solutions possible. 


For more tips on problem solving and a step-by-step technique to determine the causes of performance gaps, enroll in our Consulting Skills Workshop. It’s filled with other techniques such as “Fishbone,” “Idea Sort” and “Chronology” that can really help you get to the root of your problems.


As Albert Einstein said, "We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them." So, let's think outside the box!


Let me know how you've "thought outside the box", in the comments section below—I look forward to learning more about what's worked well for YOU!


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Marsha has been a course leader with Langevin since 2000. She graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience. She went on to attend Osgoode Hall Law School and practiced civil litigation for a few years. While working for a company as their in-house legal counsel, Marsha fell into a training position and never looked back! Each day, Marsha brings passion and excitement to her workshops, always encouraging her participants to find their own passion as well. Outside of the classroom, Marsha loves to spend time with her family, travel, and stay active. Of course her main obsession is Elvis! Some people might think she’s a little over-the-top about him, but doesn’t everyone have an Elvis shrine in their home? Maybe not…

Tags: performance consulting

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Our very own world-class course leaders share their experiences, tips, best practices, and expertise on virtual training, instructional design, needs analysis, e-learning, delivery, evaluation, presentation skills, facilitation, and much more!

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