The Five Why Method of Change


Share on LinkedIn

Success in any change is largely dependent on identification of the real problem or issue. Many times, the obvious problem is masking an obscured larger issue. This is true in both our personal lives and professional organizations.

Within either environment, tough questions need to be asked and answered honestly. One of the more effective methods for successfully digging through the obscurations is through the Five Why Method of Change. Think of the Five Why method as the grown-up version of the over-inquisitive child.

For instance, one of my children was upset that it was raining outside, thus preventing him from playing in the backyard. When I told him that rain is actually a good thing, he replied back with, “Why?” That answer got another reply of, “Why?” And so on, until my patience was exhausted and I distracted him with some coloring books.

The Five Why Method of Change works in the same fashion. Consider again our overweight person. In a moment of clarity, he realizes and admits that he is overweight.

Q1: Why am I overweight?
A1: Because I consume too many high fat and high caloric foods.

Q2: Why do I consume these foods?
A2: Because they provide ready comfort.

Q3: Why do I need ready comfort?
A3: Because I am always tired and feel overworked.

Q4: Why do I feel that way?
A4: Because I don’t truly feel appreciated.

Q5: Why don’t I feel appreciated?
A5: I don’t know.

While not an overly scientific method, Five Why Method of Change helps us get through the obscuration and shines a light on the real issue. In the above scenario, the real issue is likely a feeling of lacking self-worth and/or self-confidence. Further examination (likely by a professional) will likely unearth the events and/or feelings that evolved into the lack of self-worth/self-confidence. Even more importantly, it will help discover why those feelings are still impactful presently. Thus, the real issue is highlighted and can be addressed. Only after the real issue has been addressed, can successful change be realized.

The same process works in organizational change. For example, a division of a larger company is struggling with the company’s revenue (read: losing money).

Q1: Why are we losing money?
A1: Because we don’t have a cohesive sales and marketing effort.

Q2: Why don’t we have this effort?
A2: We don’t have the manpower and resources available.

Q3: Why don’t we have the resources available?
A3: We are on a tight budget that doesn’t allow for these resources.
Q4: Why are we on such a tight budget? And so on.

While the organizational example appears overly simplistic, the process does work. The Five Why Method of Change doesn’t have to stop with just the five iterations of why; it is a suggested minimum with full flexibility to allow additional iterations as necessary. The Five Why method is a proven tool in Total Quality Management (TQM) programs and is a solid technique for uncovering root issues, wherever they may occur.

Thus, the key lessons from the Five Why method are 1) keep digging deeper to uncover the real issue and 2) don’t attempt to solve the apparent problem with an answer to any of the why questions.

Since the Five Why Method of Change doesn’t necessarily mean stopping with the fifth why, when is the right time to stop digging? In other words, how do we know when we have reached the real issue to address?

If there remains an answer to a why question, then there is still buried treasure in the dirt. When the only answer to a why question is ‘I don’t know’, then the real issue treasure will be exposed. At this point, the focus should shift from digging through the dirt to better understanding the newly uncovered issue.

For example, if the final why is preceded by “Because our CEO ordered us to do it this way,” the real issue is the CEO’s orders and unless the CEO either changes those orders or we better understand the reasoning behind those orders, no effective change will happen. Is it likely that the CEO will change the orders without a compelling argument predicated on a thorough understanding of not only the orders but also their subsequent impact? Since we know that it is improbable to effectuate a change in the CEO’s orders without the requisite understanding, the real focus should be to understand the reasoning and then continuing on the Five Why process with this new information.

Many times a why answer will tread close to prematurely diving a solution. Going back to the organizational Five Why example, a reasonable person might conclude that if we somehow achieve cohesion the problem will be solved. But is the only reason that the division loses money due to lack of sales and marketing cohesion? Or are there other reasons as well? If we assume that this lack of cohesion is truly the only reason for the losses, than a single iteration of the Five Why Method of Change should suffice to detect and identify the real issue. However, it is probable that there may be other primary and contributing factors as well.

By making every effort to avoid answering a why question with a possible implied overall solution, we are likely to get to the most significant factor. Once the real issue has been detected and identified, we can repeat the Five Why Method of Change process as many times as needed to uncover additional contributing factors and influencers.

Moe Glenner
Moe Glenner is the founder and president of PURELogistics, a leading consulting firm that specializes in organizational change. He earned his MBA at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management and a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt Certification from Villanova University. Glenner's new book, Selfish Altruism: Managing & Executing Successful Change Initiatives ($13.95 | Amazon), explores best practices in organizational change. For more information, visit


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here