The Power of Why

One of the best ways to get to root causes of problems lies in the question “why.” Why does it take 30 days to pay an invoice? Why does Finance require five signatures on the cheque? Why is the Contracts Division involved in payment processing? Why? It is such a simple question, but it can generate powerful results.

The key to using the “5-Whys” is to ask “why” five times (sometimes the answer you’re looking for will be revealed in less than five questions, but usually not more than five). Each why question builds on the answer provided to the previous question. Here’s an example of how to use it to get to root causes of problems, starting with the problem statement.

Problem statement: Our suppliers are unhappy because they aren’t getting their payments within two weeks of invoicing.

1.  Why aren’t suppliers getting paid within two weeks?

Because it takes Finance at least two weeks to get approvals on the invoice.

2.  Why does it take Finance at least two weeks to get approvals on the invoice?

Because it takes at least two weeks for the contract manager to approve the invoice.

3.  Why does it take at least two weeks for the contract manager to approve the invoice?

Because the contract manager doesn’t always know that they have invoices waiting for their approval.

4.  Why doesn’t the contract manager know that they have invoices waiting for their approval?

Because invoices aren’t separated from other work, the contract manager does not know that they have high priority items like approvals mixed in with lower priority work.

5.  Why aren’t invoices separated from other work?

I don’t know.

In this case, you can see that it took five Whys to discover that the delay in payment is a result of ineffective approval processing.

The 5 Whys can also be used as part of a cause-and-effect diagram. This is also known as a fishbone or Ishikawa diagram. Here is an example of this diagram. You will notice that process has the most issues, so this is an indication that process may be the root cause of the problem you are seeking to resolve.

While a very simple tool, the power of the 5-Whys in rooting out causes of problems is invaluable to those interested in improving organizational processes. Why, you ask? Because it is simply one of the easiest tools to use; that’s why.