5 Whys Mindset

Asking Why For Deeper Understanding And To Get To The Root Cause

Kids love to ask “why?”. Sometimes it is just to push buttons, and sometimes it is to get to meaningful understanding. Our daughter often falls into the former camp, while our son the latter.

Regardless, I’ve always tried to push the boundaries of my understanding by answering their questions. And it takes us to some unexpected places sometimes, especially when “I don’t know” is an unacceptable answer.

For example, our son asked recently why his fingertips wrinkled in the shower. I told him water makes fingers wrinkle like prunes. He, of course, asked why. And I didn’t know. So I had to look it up. And it turns out that our blood vessels constrict when our fingers and toes get wet, causing them to wrinkle. This is called vasoconstriction. Again, my son asked why. And it turns out that wrinkly fingers and toes actually grip things better. So if our ancestors were walking in streams or picking up berries with wet hands, they’d do it better with wrinkly fingers and toes. So it would be an advantage. And today we benefit from that too. So when we’re swimming or showering, we slip less and can pick up the shampoo better with wrinkled fingers.

I find that fascinating, and not something I would have known if my son hadn’t pushed deeper, asking why multiple times.

That is the value of digging deeper. Rather than simply stopping with “fingers wrinkle in water,” we push past our initial understanding to really get to the heart of the matter or problem.

The 5 Whys

The 5 Whys methodology was popularized by Toyota and is used in many companies today. It follows a similar pattern as I outlined above. In its simplest form, you ask “why” multiple times until you get to the root of a problem, rather than accept the first answer that surfaces.

For example, let’s say that an issue arose from some new code pushed to production. The first question anyone will ask will likely be “what happened?” Followed shortly thereafter by “why?”

In our hypothetical example, let’s say the new code took down part of the application for our users because it introduced a bug.

In many cases, we may stop there. But if we use the 5 Whys framework, we would dig deeper. Why did we introduce a bug? Because our testing environment isn’t up-to-date with our production environment, so we can’t be fully confident in all our testing. Why don’t our testing and production environments align? We don’t have enough people to maintain them. Why don’t we have enough people? We have 3 open headcount we’ve been unable to fill. This could go deeper, but we’re uncovering some really good things here.

This could also lead to some other lines of Why questions. Why did we not know about the bug until users reached out? We didn’t have monitoring on that part of our site. Why don’t have monitoring on that part of our site? We recently switched from one monitoring application to another, and haven’t instrumented all of our application yet.

Once we’ve uncovered the real problems, we can actually take steps to fix them. Rather than simply addressing the bug, we can fix the underlying issues that will cause more bugs in the future. Whether that is the testing environment, the monitoring, or other things. And that’s the point. Get to the heart of the problem.

Implementing on Your Team

We implemented this framework on several teams, and it was incredible. We produced actual documents writing out the answers to these questions whenever issues arose. Depending on the severity of the issue, these would get presented to leaders as well. But it’s a good exercise for understanding why you’re running into issues as a team or organization.

5 Whys Mindset

It’s too easy to settle for the first answer that comes to mind when we have a question or a problem. “Our fingers wrinkle when they get wet.” “We had a bug.” “Human-error.” “We need a button that does X.”

Those are all first-level answers. What we need is to adopt a 5 Whys mindset to problems. Why did we introduce a bug? Why did a human cause an error? Why do you need a button that does X?

Once we get past the initial problem, we can start to understand the root cause or the real need. And that’s when we can start to get to the heart of the problem and create real meaningful solutions for our teams, our businesses, and our users.


Good Reads, Listens, and Videos

It Never Feels Like The Right Time (article) - If you have too many preconditions, you end up with a million excuses separating you from the thing you actually want to do. You never leave your job and you stay in your terrible relationship and you never start learning the thing you want to learn. You never start writing because you’re fixated on trying to buy the perfect pen and the perfect desk.

Apple Employees Push Back Against Returning to The Office (article) - I have a running Twitter thread about remote work which you should check out, but the latest article is about Apple employees pushing back against Apple’s attempt to recall everyone back 3 days per week. I’m not surprised by Apple, and not surprised by their employees response. It’s the continued gap between execs and employees.

Burnout - Understanding and Addressing Employee Burnout (podcast) - Burnout is a serious issue, and is becoming an increasingly common workplace phenomenon. But what can we do about it? In this episode, we identify the symptoms of burnout, the common causes, and what we can do to prevent burnout in ourselves and our teams. From taking breaks, to finding the right role and company, to taking control of our "why" and our time.

Share Product Thinking