Aligning Teams with the 5 Whys

It's not just for root cause analysis

Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Industries, is credited with developing the “5 Whys” technique of analysis. Toyoda observed that, through asking “why?” iteratively, we are able to get past the superficial symptoms of an issue and dig deep into the fundamental cause. While the 5 Whys is used extensively in process improvement disciplines such as Lean and Six Sigma, it is also a powerful technique for building understanding, achieving consensus, and aligning teams.


We’ve all been in meetings where no progress was made toward a solution, because we couldn’t even reach agreement on what the problem was. This is one of the most important things I do in my facilitation and consulting work: helping team members get past their preconceptions. Invariably, some participants come into the room with strong opinions about what’s wrong and what needs to be done about it… from their own specific point of view. When these opinions aren’t unanimous, or don’t reflect a deep, holistic understanding of the problem (and potential solutions), they get in the way of the real progress the team desires.

Applying the 5 Whys technique with the team is one way to get past these preconceptions and help the team develop a deeper shared understanding of the problem at hand, and what should be done about it. Let’s look at a simple example. A team has been convened to address recent employee satisfaction issues with your company. The team includes representatives from Human Resources, several functional managers of different groups, an executive sponsor, and a few employee representatives. It’s apparent that several team members have strong opinions on the topic. An employee representative says everyone is under pressure to work too many hours. One manager says they need more staff to address the problem. One manager says we’ve spoiled employees with past concessions and they just need to “suck it up” – and other participants roll their eyes.  An HR representative says we need to do another survey. It’s pretty chaotic, and the meeting is just getting started.

The 5 Whys can help here. Instead of using the 5 Whys to “interrogate” each participant, turn the questions toward the team, and use the technique to surface alternative points of view.

Q1: Why is employee satisfaction falling?

Get one idea from each participant, and capture them on a flip chart or an electronic list everyone can see. Ask if anyone needs clarification on what was meant by any of the answers. Ask the group if anything is missing, or if any of the answers can be consolidated. Allow the team to discuss any suggestions, as this will surface details of where team members agree, and where they don’t. Let’s say one recurring theme is “we’re working too many hours.”

Q2: Why do employees feel they’re working too many hours?

Notice we didn’t immediately jump to “why ARE employees working too many hours?” We’re not assuming this is fact, but we’re acknowledging it’s a perception. Going through the same individual and team brainstorming process, let’s say we uncover “many people are participating in conference calls at all hours of the day and night.”

Q3: Why are there so many conference calls during “off” hours?

One reason that surfaces is “we have to schedule calls so participants in Europe and Asia can join.”

Q4: Why are there meetings with so many international participants?

“Because otherwise no one knows what’s going on.”

Q5: Why don’t groups have visibility of what’s going on internationally?

“Because we don’t trust our systems and reports to give us an accurate picture.” Everyone in the room is nodding at this revelation. Further discussion reveals a shared perception that many inefficiencies and extra work are driven by this issue.

We’ve asked “why” five times. Do we stop here? No! Sometimes it may take a few more iterations to get to potential solutions. But see what we’ve done? We’ve found something the team agrees on, and it’s not a personal indictment of employees or management. It’s an actionable challenge that can be further analyzed and addressed. By leading a collaborative idea generation, discussion, and analysis approach, we’ve defused what could have been an unproductive argument between factions with radically different points of view.

Use the 5 Whys in this way as a method to get the team talking about the stuff that matters… and to get past the “baggage” participants may bring into a meeting.

Question: What other methods have you used to get past preconceptions? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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