Getting at the Root Cause of Internal Problems by Asking 5 Whys

Ask a series of five whys. However, leaders must carefully think through how each iteration––whys that peel back each new layer of the onion––may impact those who have a stake in the problem and each particular layer within the onion.

“As each new layer of the onion was peeled back, a manager with a stake in each particular layer of the onion was exposed too.”

At a meeting where a team was trying to solve a specific problem, I heard a series of curious questions being posed. Few answers with similar curiosity came back. But each question why this or that was happening, did seem to peel back another layer of the onion to expose the root cause of the problem.

For a while, the whys seemed to have it. Root causes were deftly exposed by a logical sequence of questioning. But as each new layer of the onion was peeled back, a manager with a stake in each particular layer of the onion was exposed too. And one became increasingly defensive and uncooperative.

The first employee question to her ruffled no feathers.

Why aren’t customers receiving their bills on time? the sales engineer asked.

“Because there was a failure within the system,” the manager responded.

Innocently enough, the discerning, youthful engineer—calling on her cause and effect training—probed further. “Why was there a failure within the system that prohibited bills from being sent on time?”

Looking down and away, the manager–embarrassed because the questioning had now reached her particular layer of the onion, took responsibility answering: “Because I failed to get billing out on time.”

The circuitous response failed to earn the engineer’s confidence she had discovered the problem’s true root cause. But the engineer felt she was onto something, and like a dog on a bone, refused to let go. Her next question exposed not just another layer of the onion, but something far more painful.

“Why did your team fail to get billing out on time?” the engineer demanded to know.

“Because I failed to order the 3,000 envelopes it takes to regularly send out bills!” fired back the manager.

Ugly as communications were, they were about to get uglier.

Getting ahead of herself, furious and now out of control emotionally, the engineer skipped ahead. Rhetorically, she screamed, “Why did you fail to order the 3,000 envelopes on time? Why were you short resources of something so important to our business and to my customers? “My customers are threatening to find new vendors because of this.” Why are you not ordering envelopes with enough time to send out my customer’s bills?”

She then put the final dagger into the communications and learning coffin, and ended the discussion altogether. “Don’t you know revenue drives this company?”

Silence fell, as a lone pin was heard falling in the back of the room.

Questions, intended to help the team gain new knowledge, had instead, been turned into rhetorical statements and ad hominem attacks.

In this situation, each answer to the engineer’s question seemingly avoided why the real problem continued to occur. But eventually, too many “engineer-like” follow up questions shut down communications en masse. As a result, no one got to the problem’s real root cause. And both parties then took turns turning opportunity for improvement into even more problems.

At that point, communications became the root cause of the problem. A problem that’s become the norm, not the exception today. Frustrated by this, teams wonder what can be done to improve these situations.

Leaders must give permission for employees to be curious
Before each new layer can be peeled away from the onion, to then get to a problem’s root causes, employees must first feel free to probe; free to inquisitively––almost scientifically, ask why without repercussion.

To do this, leaders must create environments where learning, curiosity, and cooperation can thrive together. Craig Weber, author of the book Conversational Capacity, describes this as the “Conversational Sweet Spot.”

This is what a difficult conversation in the sweet spot looks like.

We’re working hard to candidly express how we see things, but we’re working just as hard to curiously explore how others are looking at the same issue. We’re neither arguing nor shutting down because we’re less concerned about being right or comfortable and more focused on what counts: working with our team to generate a better understanding of the issue at hand so we can make the best choice possible.

4 steps to improve learning and thinking
While it appears deceptively simple, responding this way requires the mindful use of four distinct skills that are extremely difficult to balance under pressure:

  1. Stating our clear position
  2. Explaining the underlying thinking that informs our position
  3. Testing our perspective
  4. Inquiring into the perspectives of others

Once an environment is in place that allows people to communicate in a similar manner, continuous improvements become more sustainable. You’ll experience this when whys turn losing into learning and whining into winning. Which comes from people who have permission to dig into one another’s thinking. Then each iteration of questions can help employees gain knowledge as the learning process continues.

When employees’ respect and self esteem don’t feel threatened, their curiosity speaks up, not ceases up. As you see that happening, you’ll know your teams are on the right track. And as employees work together to answer their own whys, their mutual curiosity is enabled and nurtured––freeing it up to solve problems, not create them.


Colin D. Baird is an operational turn-around and leadership consultant and the Managing Partner of Five Why Leaders. An organization that provides service to companies in crisis. He is also a consultant to TBM Consulting Group, a global leader in operational excellence with management consultants on four continents. Colin can be reached at