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The Five Whys

This article appeared in the May 31st issue of APICS extra. It featured yours truly and covers the topic of the five whys. You can learn more about APICS by visiting

Why Do You Ask?

By Douglas R. Kelly

Maybe it's because I'm a parent, but whenever I come across the term “the five why's,” I immediately think of kids and the way they learn about things. You know what I mean—you tell a child something and they come right back with “Why?” You then explain the reason behind the information you've imparted, there's a pause—and then another “Why?”

Although it can get a little tedious (especially when your child shoots right past five), you're actually practicing root cause analysis in those situations. You may be getting at why birdies live in the trees instead of in regular houses, but at least the process makes you think and analyze things you take for granted. The APICS Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, defines the five why's this way: “The common practice in TQM [total quality management] is to ask ‘why' five times when confronted with a problem. By the time the answer to the fifth ‘why' is found, the ultimate cause of the problem is identified.”

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When the subject turns to lean methodologies, one of our APICS' go-to people is Jamie Flinchbaugh, founder and partner at The Lean Learning Center in Novi, Michigan. He's co-author (with Andy Carlino) of the book “The Hitchhiker's Guide to Lean,” and when I asked him for a “snapshot” scenario of the way in which the five why's can get at the cause of a problem, he said, “OK, if I pull my car out of my garage and see oil on the garage floor, my solution is to clean it up. But if I dig deeper, maybe I need to fix the engine because it has a leak. But why did I end up with a leaking engine? Was I not taking care of it properly? Did I not do the necessary maintenance? If I fix it at that level, I can avoid winding up back in the same situation. In essence, five why's helps us focus on how the work produces the results.”

Don't miss the power of what appears to be a very simple tool. Asking why can open doors that would likely have stayed closed under normal circumstances, and walking through those doors can take you and your organization to great places. Five is not some magic number, by the way; it's a rule of thumb that can and should be modified according to the demands of a given situation. And although it is often used as part of a six sigma program, the five why's work quite well on their own. They also apply to service-oriented operations as well as to manufacturing.
That leads to a “why” question that's just dying to be asked: Why do so few organizations take advantage of this results-producing technique? Part of the answer lies in real and perceived barriers that can prevent a manager from even opening his or her mouth in the first place. “One barrier is that asking ‘why' feels invasive,” offers Flinchbaugh. “If a person doesn't understand the context, it can feel like you're challenging their integrity. In fact, I was once told by someone that they were trained by a communications consultant never to use the word ‘why' because it sets up confrontation. That's an extreme condition, but without proper context, it can be quite invasive.”

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Another challenge—one which surprised me because not doing this strikes me as intentionally setting up for failure—is being unable to observe current reality. As Flinchbaugh says, “This is a key lean skill. I can't just guess at the answer; I have to go out and actually observe and understand and analyze.” A third barrier facing managers who are asking (or who want to be asking) why is not following up and verifying results. “This is an opportunity for an organization to learn what works and what doesn't work,” says Flinchbaugh, “and if we don't follow up, we don't learn anything. It would be like throwing a dart at a dartboard and not looking to see where it lands.”

Like the child asking why the birds don't bump into the top of the sky, it's important to have a healthy curiosity about why your organization's processes produce the results they produce.

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Jamie Flinchbaugh is a lean advisor, speaker, and author. In addition to co-founding the Lean Learning Center, he has helped build nearly 20 companies as either a co-founder, board member, advisor, or angel investor. These companies range from high-performance motorcycles to SaaS tools for continuous improvement. He has advised over 300 companies around the world in lean transformation, including Intel, Harley-Davidson, Crayola, BMW, and Amazon. Jamie co-authored the popular book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean, and continues to share his experiences as a Contributing Editor forIndustryWeek and as a blogger at He holds degrees from Lehigh University, University of Michigan, and MIT, and continues to teach and mentor on campus. Jamie is best known for helping to transform how we think about lean from a tools-centric model to one based on principles and behaviors. His passion for lean transformation comes from seeking to unlock the great potential that people possess to build inspiring organizations.

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