The Power of Asking "Why?"

8 Asking ‘why' again and again is harder than you think, but it works

It's kind of neat to see a column about the “5 whys” method in a general business publication (link above). The consultant and professor in the article gives proper credit to Toyota and Taiichi Ohno, but curiously calls it the “Japanese Manufacturing Technique” (as if that's a proper name). I've near heard that phrase… something he coined rather than just “Lean Manufacturing” or the “Toyota Production System?”

Anyway, the article gives a good example of a 5 Whys analysis from Ohno. In my experience, 5 Whys is hardly ever that neat and tidy (you can hit some dead ends or have multiple branches in the answers), but you can get some real breakthroughs.

Going through a 5 Whys exercise with a hospital group once, we asked “Why are hand hygiene practices not followed 100% of the time?” One real breakthrough was a comment “Our hands and arms are full when leaving a patient room sometimes.” We asked why that was, and kept asking why — turns out that carts were not always available, so the follow up would be a 5S initiative around proper storage locations for carts and having the discipline to keep them there. Instead of browbeating nurses for not washing, our job was to make it easier for them to do the right thing. We thought that was good problem solving — or more effective than hanging more signs at least.

The linked article also talks about some of the downsides of asking why, especially if you're challenging technical experts or “lords,” as he calls them. People can get defensive. You really have to watch your tone of voice when asking why. I've found it's better to ask “Why is it that….” instead of “Why do YOU…” because people take the latter as direct criticism.

Asking “why?” in private or 1×1 can also be less embarrassing than asking someone in front of a group. You always have to be aware of politics and sensitivity. Most of us aren't an Ohno, being comfortable yelling or screaming at someone.

What are your experiences with the 5 Whys, good or bad?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Mark, not completely topical, but I am wondering if the prevalence of disposable antiseptic wipes has impacted the hand washing situation in hospitals at all. It seems they would be an effective substitute, more convenient–which usually means more effective. Recently my father spent a few days in a very good hospital and I did not see anything like that in use. Just wondering why.

  2. Before learning of TPS and 5 Whys, I always asked questions. I’m a naturally curious person and need to know “why” so I fully understand. I have found, sometimes, that asking any question at all can put people on the defensive. If I start asking questions, they assume that I disagree or don’t believe or something, and get very defensive and start focusing on “why is she asking these questions???” instead of focusing on helping me understand. All of a sudden I’m in a confrontation, when I was really trying to learn more. I frequently preface my questions (with a new person who does not already have a working relationship with me) with a disclaimer such as: “now I’m going to ask you some questions, just because I’m a curious person and like to know the bigger picture, so please don’t assume that any of my questions mean I’ve taken a side or don’t like this program. Its just my way of learning.” I have found that it diffuses any potential defensiveness, as well as ingratiates me with them as now they like that I’m trying to understand their program/process/whatever. I’ve found they even start assuming the complete opposite, that I am on their side and here is their chance to convince/inform me. This is something I have just recently figured out and I’m eager to try it a few more times to see if it really works.

  3. The five whys, or questioning to the void, is the simplest problem solving technique that I use daily in my operations job.

  4. Mike – I’ve never seen wipes… what you tend to see are alcohol based gels that are anti-bacterial. I don’t know why they choose gel over wipes, other than maybe it’s less trash to dispose of (it’s easier to gel and rub into your hands as you walk, then nothing to toss out).

  5. Hi Mark,

    Great article, thanks for sharing…we know the 5Y method is time honored, but “Japanese Management Technique, or JMT?”

    Coincidentally, the TWI training delivered in Japan during the fifties may be the first time the 5Y training was institutionalized through Japanese management associations. The delivery of 5Y training was through TWI’s Job Methods Training, or JMT!

    5Y is typically very useful, but only if one can link the cause and effect chain back to root cause. This is often not done, mostly because people for some reason, stop asking why after five times! Often one needs to ask why many times, or as long as it takes, verifying cause and effect for each answer. This doesn’t have to be formally done, but writing it down on paper helps one practice and develop this cause and effect thinking into a quick mental exercise. When many people begin to do this automatically, that’s when I find it becomes extremely useful.

  6. A friend reminded me about a book that I have on my shelf even… the origin of the “JMT” phrase:

    “One of the foundational books that got the lean movement going, it still sells well 26 years later. Perhaps it’s before your time. Up until the 90’s, “lean” was as much known as Japanese Manufacturing Techniques as it was known as Just-in-Time. Thought you might like to see where they probably got it.”

  7. I recently trained a small group to do the 5 Whys. With some of their colleagues I had shared a lot of background with them, reading The Toyota Way (Liker 1999), and getting into conversations about respect for people and continuous improvement. The people that I was training were new and this was a bit of an introduction to lean concepts.

    5 Why didn’t fly. They were too wrapped up in solving the problem and moving to the next fire. I realize now how important the cultural aspect of lean is, even with beginning to train new people.


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