Problem-solving and conquering the “5 Whys”

February 15, 2015

As agency Account Mangers, one of our jobs is to understand what our client’s “pain points” are and come up with solutions to eliminate the pain and (hopefully) delight our client. The skill that we need to develop is the ability to dig down to the root of our client's problem. The Account Manager who will excel at this skill is the one who 1) listens; and 2) asks the “5 Whys”.

The 5 Whys can be simply defined as you ask the question “why” five times in a row to reach the true issue. It won’t always be that you’ll need to ask “why” a total of five times, nor will you have to use the actual word “why” five times in a row (otherwise your client may think you’re slightly mad). You’ll get used to your client over time, and figure out how far you need to dig, and the language you need to use.

The 5 Whys method was originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda for the Toyota Motor Corporation and their manufacturing methodologies. The technique became a critical component of their problem-solving training. Toyoda determined that by asking “why” five times, not only the nature of the problem, but also the solution becomes clear.

Each time you ask “why”, look for an answer that is grounded in fact - something that has actually happened, not events that might have happened. This will prevent the 5 Whys from becoming a process of deductive reasoning, which could have a number of plausible causes and create confusion. The aim is to find the root cause (note: sometimes it may take you more than just five whys!).


For example, a dialogue with your client could go something like this:

AM: Hi John, what can I do for you today?

John: We ran out of brochures at the trade show last weekend, but I think we also need to re-look at the design too.

AM: Why? (1st why)

John: Customer feedback at the trade show told me that people didn’t really understand what our product does, even after reading the brochure.

AM: Why? (2nd why)

John: The text is quite complicated and the images don’t really show the detail in the packaging.

AM: Why? (3rd why)

John: We wrote the text, and took our own photos.

AM: Why? (4th why)

John: We thought we knew our products better than anyone else and wanted to save money.

AM: Why? (5th why)

John: (Root problem) We thought a brochure we created ourselves would be effective, but we were wrong.

AM: (Solution) No problem, John, we’ll do the copywriting, design and photography for you, and I bet you’ll get positive feedback at your next trade show.


The final “why” should point toward a process that is not working well, or does not exist. In this example, the faulty process was that John was trying to create the content of the brochure himself, but didn’t have the copywriting or photography skills to do so.

5 Whys is most suited to simple or moderately difficult problems. Although the technique has been criticised by some people, there is no doubt that “why” is an extremely powerful question that gets your client thinking and talking. The next time you need to find a solution for your client, or do some trouble-shooting, why don’t you give the 5 Whys technique a go and let us know [in the comments section] how you got on?!

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