Optimal thought and optimal fitness through reason, logic, science, passion, and wisdom.
(Conceptual) Thinking and the Five Whys
(Conceptual) Thinking and the Five Whys

(Conceptual) Thinking and the Five Whys

In “5 Whys,” the Mind Tools Content Team writes:

Have you ever had a problem that refused to go away? No matter what you did, sooner or later it would return, perhaps in another form.

Stubborn or recurrent problems are often symptoms of deeper issues. “Quick fixes” may seem convenient, but they often solve only the surface issues and waste resources that could otherwise be used to tackle the real cause.

In this article and in the video, below, we look at the 5 Whys technique (sometimes known as 5Y). This is a simple but powerful tool for cutting quickly through the outward symptoms of a problem to reveal its underlying causes, so that you can deal with it once and for all.

Sakichi Toyoda, the Japanese industrialist, inventor, and founder of Toyota Industries, developed the 5 Whys technique in the 1930s. It became popular in the 1970s, and Toyota still uses it to solve problems today.

Toyota has a “go and see” philosophy. This means that its decision making is based on an in-depth understanding of what’s actually happening on the shop floor, rather than on what someone in a boardroom thinks might be happening.

The 5 Whys technique is true to this tradition, and it is most effective when the answers come from people who have hands-on experience of the process or problem in question.

The method is remarkably simple: when a problem occurs, you drill down to its root cause by asking “Why?” five times. Then, when a counter-measure becomes apparent, you follow it through to prevent the issue from recurring.


And in “Five whys” on Wikipedia, they write:

Five whys (or 5 whys) is an iterative interrogative technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem.[1] The primary goal of the technique is to determine the root cause of a defect or problem by repeating the question “Why?”. Each answer forms the basis of the next question. The “five” in the name derives from an anecdotal observation on the number of iterations needed to resolve the problem.

Not all problems have a single root cause. If one wishes to uncover multiple root causes, the method must be repeated asking a different sequence of questions each time.

The method provides no hard and fast rules about what lines of questions to explore, or how long to continue the search for additional root causes. Thus, even when the method is closely followed, the outcome still depends upon the knowledge and persistence of the people involved.

The technique was originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda and was used within the Toyota Motor Corporation during the evolution of its manufacturing methodologies. It is a critical component of problem-solving training, delivered as part of the induction into the Toyota Production System. The architect of the Toyota Production System, Taiichi Ohno, described the five whys method as “the basis of Toyota’s scientific approach by repeating why five times[5] the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear.”[6] The tool has seen widespread use beyond Toyota, and is now used within Kaizen, lean manufacturing and Six Sigma. The five whys were initially developed to understand why new product features or manufacturing techniques were needed, and was not developed for root cause analysis.

In other companies, it appears in other forms. Under Ricardo Semler, Semco practices “three whys” and broadens the practice to cover goal setting and decision making.[7]


Of course, you might need to ask “why” more or less than five times. The key is to get a root cause, but the method has to have some name, so “Five Whys” it is.

More broadly, much conceptual thought is nothing more or less than asking and answering questions. Questions give you a direction to think, a goal to attain, a sequence of cognition, and a context to think in.

Questions — in the privacy of one’s own mind, not only to other people!! — are an important tool of thought that need to be used in teaching and taught in education.

Some stuff in school we may never use, but we must use reason, logic, and questioning wherever we turn our minds to think. Hence questioning is fundamental to success in many areas of life.

Of course, it must be taught by doing it and having students practice it on specific, concrete content in many things over years of education. It cannot be taught “purely” separate from content.

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