I’ve known about “The 5 Whys” for a while (I mentioned the 5 Whys in my last book, Glimmer), but I was reminded of them recently by AMBQ collaborative team member Bill Welter. He wrote:
Toyota shifted the Japanese car market in the 1980s with an emphasis on quality. Factory workers were encouraged to ask ‘Why?’ at least 5 times. The ‘5 Whys’ technique is still the foundation of quality programs around the world. (Too bad about the recent quality issues at Toyota—maybe they forgot to ask the questions that made them famous.)”
This process of asking 5 whys is not just applicable to making cars—it can be used in almost any type of creative endeavor. It can even be used to make sense of your own life. The design firm IDEO, which is a big practitioner of the 5 Whys methodology, offers this as an example of how asking 5 whys can help you dig down to a deeper truth.
One might ask, Why stop at five? Why not just keep asking why endlessly? The answer is that you will drive the people around you insane. The comedian Louis C.K. captures this nicely in this bit.
I cover the 5 Whys to much greater extent in my book A More Beautiful Question. For more on The 5 Whys on this site, read my interview with the founder of the Lean Startup Methodology Eric Ries and my interview with actor Stephen Tobolowsky, both of whom practice the simple, almost child-like technique of asking a series of questions to get to a good resolution.