Change Management Blog

The Journey of the 'Five Whys' Technique

January 16, 2023

Talal I. El-Assaad: Specialized Change Management Expertise

Time to Read: 4 Min


The Journey of the 'Five Whys' Technique


Origin and Development: 

The 'Five Whys' technique was conceived by Sakichi Toyoda, a prominent Japanese manufacturer and the founder of Toyota Industries, in the 1930s. 

This was during a period when Toyota was evolving its manufacturing methodologies.

Taiichi Ohno (1912-1990) who was the architect of the Toyota Production System and described as the father of Lean Production, described the "Five Whys" as the basis of Toyota's scientific approach. 

By asking "why" five times, the nature of the problem and its solution become clear​​. This method became a critical component of problem-solving training in the Toyota Production System​​.This simple yet powerful approach was designed to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying specific problems in manufacturing processes. By repeatedly asking "Why?"—usually five times—the nature of a problem and its solution becomes clearer. The method gained notable fame in the 1970s and continues to be a staple in Toyota's problem-solving arsenal to this day​​​​.


Methodology and Application: 

At its core, the 'Five Whys' is an iterative interrogative technique used to determine the root cause of a defect or problem. 

  • Root Cause Identification: The primary goal of the "Five Whys" is to determine the root cause of a defect or problem by iteratively asking the question "Why?" The answer to the fifth "why" is expected to reveal the root cause​​.

  • Focus on Processes: A key aspect of this approach is that the real root cause should point toward a process that is not working well or does not exist. It's important to move beyond superficial answers (like lack of time or resources) and to ask why the process failed​​.


Widespread Adoption Beyond Toyota: 

Originally developed to understand the need for new product features or manufacturing techniques, the "Five Whys" have evolved into a tool for comprehensive root cause analysis, transcending its original scope within Toyota's manufacturing context​​.

Its effectiveness led to its widespread adoption beyond Toyota, becoming an integral part of methodologies like Kaizen, lean manufacturing, lean construction, and Six Sigma. The technique's simplicity and direct approach to problem-solving have made it a valuable tool in various industries and applications​​.


Adaptation in Different Contexts: 

The flexibility of the “Five Whys” or “5 Ys” has allowed for its adaptation in different organizational contexts. For instance, under the leadership of Ricardo Semler at Semco, the practice was modified to "three whys," broadening its scope to include goal setting and decision-making processes. This variation illustrates the technique's versatility and its potential for customization to suit different organizational needs and cultures​​.


The 'Five Whys' technique stands as a testament to the power of simplicity in problem-solving. From its inception to its global application across various industries, it has demonstrated an enduring ability to efficiently uncover root causes of problems, fostering a culture of inquisitive analysis and continuous improvement. 


The 5 Whys in Change Management

The Five Whys technique can be highly effective in the context of Change Management. Let us look at how it works and its helpful usage:

  1. How the Five Whys works in Change Management?
    1. Identifying the Root Cause of Resistance or Issues: 
      In Change Management, resistance or challenges often arise. The Five Whys help by drilling down into these problems. By asking "Why?" repeatedly, you delve deeper into the initial reason for resistance or a problem, moving from surface-level symptoms to the underlying cause.
    2. Clarifying Change Objectives: 
      Sometimes, the objectives of a change initiative might not be clear to all stakeholders. Using the “Five Whys” can help teams and leaders understand and articulate the core reasons behind the change, ensuring everyone is aligned and moving towards a common goal.
    3. Improving Communication Strategies: 
      Miscommunication or lack of understanding often hinders change efforts. The “Five Whys” can uncover specific areas where communication is falling short and help develop more targeted and effective communication strategies.


  2. Example of the Five Whys in Change Management:  Imagine a scenario where a new technology – ERP implementation - is facing resistance from employees. The Five Whys could be used as follows:
    1. Why are employees resisting the new technology? 
      They don't understand how to use it.
    2. Why don't they understand how to use it? 
      There was no comprehensive training provided.
    3. Why wasn’t there comprehensive training? 
      The importance of training was underestimated in the project plan.
    4. Why was its importance underestimated? 
      There was a lack of communication between the project team and end-users.
    5. Why was there a lack of communication? 
      The project team did not include user representatives in the planning phase.


  3. Benefits of Using the Five Whys in Change Management:
    1. Enhanced Problem-Solving: 
      It encourages a deeper investigation of issues related to change, preventing the tendency to react to symptoms rather than causes.
    2. Increased Engagement: 
      By involving team members in the process of asking and answering the Five Whys, you foster a sense of ownership and participation in the change process.
    3. Preventing Recurrence of Issues: 
      Understanding the root cause of a problem helps in devising strategies that prevent the issue from recurring in future change initiatives.
    4. Focused Action Plans: 
      Once the root cause is identified, action plans can be more focused and effective, as they address the real issue rather than just its manifestations.


The Five Whys technique, when applied to Change Management using the ADKAR Model, helps in systematically uncovering the root causes of resistance, communication gaps, or other issues impeding change initiatives. By focusing on these underlying causes, change leaders can develop more effective strategies, ensuring smoother transitions and more successful outcomes. This method serves as a reminder that often, the most effective solutions come out from asking the right questions.

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