The 5 Whys: Is Training The Answer?

Is Training The Answer To The 5 Whys?

Here’s a fairly common situation for Instructional Designers: A training request pops up, seemingly out of nowhere, because a problem has been identified. The nature of the “problem” could be technical or interpersonal, process-based, or performance-based. And by jumping immediately to a solution—in this case, training—we miss the opportunity to identify the root cause and solve the real problem at hand. This missed opportunity also wastes our finite resources of time and money and risks a loss of credibility when the training solution does not produce expected results for the organization.

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What Is The 5 Whys Technique?

Rooted in the manufacturing processes of the Toyota Production System, the 5 Whys technique is an effective way to identify the root cause of a problem. Rather than placing an immediate focus on the solution, the 5 Whys allow you to reframe the conversation on the stepwise issues that have contributed to the problem—which, ideally, results in identifying the root cause. Plus, it can help teams avoid blaming and finger-pointing when an issue arises because the process focuses on observable facts rather than hypothetical issues.

Let’s take a closer look in the context of a common metric: customer support call times. Imagine you are an Instructional Designer who receives the following request: “Our support call times are 20% longer, on average, over the past two months and we need to retrain agents on our customer database ASAP.” Sound familiar? The assumption, of course, is that more training will result in a decreased average call time. But will more agent training solve the problem?

Applying the 5 Whys, we might see the following:

  1. Why has there been a 20% increase in average call time over the past two months?
    The agents are handling more customer questions related to new product features.
  2. Why do customers have more questions about the new product features?
    The new features did not come with full instructions and product documentation.
  3. Why did the new features not come with instructions?
    The project launch team did not include a technical writer.
  4. Why did the launch team not include a technical writer?
    The technical writer is out on maternity leave, and we do not have a temporary replacement.
  5. Why do we not have a temporary replacement?
    The technical writers on other project teams are unfamiliar with the new product feature.

While simplistic, this example illustrates that the increase in average call time is more likely a result of a lack of knowledge or skill on the part of the technical writers responsible for product documentation. As an Instructional Designer in this situation, your time and effort would be better spent on cross-training technical writers to ensure they are familiar with all product features, rather than re-training agents on the customer database. And training alone isn’t the only solution. In this example, the overall staffing structure may require examination to ensure that similar lapses do not occur in the future.

How To Start Using The 5 Whys

To start using the 5 Whys in your organization, follow these steps:

  • Step 1: Gather a small group of people who are affected by the problem. Assign one person as the group’s facilitator.
  • Step 2: Clearly define the problem and, if possible, find an opportunity to observe the problem.
  • Step 3: Have the facilitator ask the team the first “Why”—Why is X problem occurring? Document the answer to the first Why. (Whiteboards are useful for taking notes.)
  • Step 4: From each answer, generate another why question—up to five total. (Five is a general guideline. Asking too few questions may not reveal the root cause, while asking too many questions generates an unwieldy number of potential causes.)
  • Step 5: Assign action items and next steps for solutions based on the answers to the questions.

Using the 5 Whys operates on a few assumptions:

  • The first assumption is that the problem you are discussing has a linear track of causes and possible solutions. The issues present in many organizations are rarely straightforward, but the 5 Whys can help identify the root cause in a single track of inquiry and kick-start a broader problem-solving process.
  • Second, if you are working to address problems within a process or system, you must ask questions about how the process is currently working—not how it should be working, or how it is documented in your procedures, but how your employees are following the process day in and day out.
  • Finally, the 5 Whys is most effective for identifying causes that have already occurred, rather than forecasting potential causes and solutions to future problems faced by your organization. To expand your problem-solving repertoire, you can consider other problem-solving approaches, such as inductive reasoning, appreciative inquiry, or root cause analysis.

If you want to learn more about how to identify and resolve training issues in your organization, download the eBook Trainer’s Guide: Influencing Your Stakeholders.


Source Chapter 2: Neibert, J. 2018. “5 Whys to Improve Your Instructional Design Practice.” ATD Links. Accessed at: