December 23, 2023




The Five Why’s Framework

At a glance

Today’s Fast Summary:

  • Recurring problems are inherently confusing. They occur when you haven’t solved the original issue. 

  • Asking 'why' 5 times is a deceptively plain process to identify the root behind an initial problem. It allows you to dig beyond the obvious cause to consider at least four layers of sub-causes.

  • This method prevents wasting time on surface problems. It’s a mind-blowingly simple mental model.

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How to Think and Solve Problems Like A Genius: The 5 Whys Framework

Professionally, personally, or individually, we’ve all encountered recurring problems. They may be operations holdups, creeping communications issues, or repeated feelings of dissatisfaction. 

Perhaps you’ve just solved a similar problem a few months ago. You ask, “Why is this cropping up again?” 

Recurring problems are inherently confusing. They occur when you haven’t solved the original issue. 

Quick fixes are tempting and convenient. But these responses are like a bandaid over a bullet hole. It's very simple to react to a stated problem without addressing the root cause. 

The issue is this: When a problem occurs, we search for immediate solutions. However, the problem on your desk or in your mind is often surface level. It’s auxiliary to the root pain point or struggle. 

The solution? Ask the right questions, and discover the true cause. 

The 5-Whys Framework

“A problem well stated is a problem half solved.” - John Dewey

Originally developed in the 1930s by Sakichi Toyoda, founder of Toyota Industries, the 5 Whys technique uses five simple questions to uncover the root of an issue. 

Toyota still uses this method. The company believes that decision-making involves a deep understanding of bottom-up processes. The 5-Whys uncovers issues on the shop floor before they make their way to C-level offices.

Here are the five questions:

  1. Why?

  2. Why?

  3. Why?

  4. Why?

  5. Why?

It’s simple. Most children can ask, “Why?” and receive an appropriate response. Anyone can try this method with any given problem. 

Asking 'why' 5 times is a deceptively plain process to identify the root behind an initial problem. 

It allows you to dig beyond the obvious cause to consider at least four additional layers of sub-causes. This allows you to first invest in the root cause and then probe additional sub-causes proportionally, as needed. 

Check out this graphic for a breakdown: 

First, the other person clarifies the problem. This requires a basic understanding of the work being done. 

Then, they reach the Gemba (Japanese for ‘actual place’). This is the actual problem at hand, which might be a surface problem. 

The first “Why” is in response to the surface problem. For example, you ask a friend, “Why are you upset?” and they vaguely reply, “Work stuff.” 

Someone from another planet doesn’t know what this means. In this context, neither do you. Their answer was vague and required further probing. 

You follow up with, “Why?” and receive slightly more information. By the fifth “Why” you have everything you need to comfort your friend and provide solutions. 

As Richard Feynman says, “The deeper something is, the more interesting it is.” The 5-Whys Framework is a powerful way to overcome the curse of knowledge

The Five Whys in Practice

Let’s use an example. First, you approach your manager and tell him, “Our increased marketing budget hasn't led to an increase in sales.”

His response is, “why?”

Secondly, you say, "High churn exists, and customers are not reordering."

He says, “Why?”

You say, “Customers were unhappy with product quality.”

He asks, “Why?” 

Then, you say, “The designs were not effectively implemented.”

He says, “Why?”

You say, “The design and build teams were not collaborating.”

Finally, he says, “Why?”

You say, “Because we have a toxic competitive work environment.”

Through these questions, you realize that the surface-level problem is the lack of increased sales. This, however, is caused by the root problem: The competitive work environment prevents teamwork.

This method prevents wasting unnecessary time on surface problems. It’s a mind-blowingly simple mental model.

Asking ‘why’ 5 times will take you to the root quickly. It helps you develop a deeper understanding of the context and patterns behind any surface issue. 

Use it in response to a surprising event. 

This week, I ask you to put the 5-Whys framework into practice. Examine a personal or professional problem you’ve been considering. Bonus if it’s a recurring problem. Think about it critically.

  1. Think about a professional problem. Write down your answers. 

    a. Clarify the problem. What are you trying to solve exactly? 

    b. Why? Why is that problem occurring? 

    c. Why? Consider a facet of your response to b. 

    d. Why? Focus on one part of your last response. 

    e. Why? Focus on a part of your response to d. 

    f. Why? This is the root of the problem. 

  2. Solve it.

    a. Your responses to b, c, d, and e, are components of the problem. They contain the necessary information. Consider what you’ve written’s relevance. 

    b. Using that information, devise a solution that solves the root problem and the surface issue. 

As Albert Einstein said, “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”

Use this framework for all of your most pressing problems.


I’d love to hear from you:

  • Have you heard of this framework? 

  • How can you use it? 

  • What are your favourite problem-solving frameworks? 

Tweet at me (@_alexbrogan) or respond to this email — I’ll try to respond to everyone.

Have a wonderful Saturday, all.

Until next time,


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