Skip to main content

The ‘5 Whys’ is a Powerful Problem Solving Tool

By January 17, 2022January 18th, 2022Approach, systems

Getting to the root cause of problems is vital for knowledge workers (e.g. lawyers). Unfortunately, often our minds skim the surface more easily than to delve into deeper levels.

The Five Whys is a tool for thinking more deeply (a useful mental model as billionaire-lawyer Charlie Munger would observe)

Most lawyers have not heard of this concept but it’s covered in Wikipedia, so it’s not completely arcane.

What are the Five Whys?

It’s an interrogative technique that’s iterative, and is used to discover the root causes of a problem. The answer to each “why” question leads to an answer that forms the basis of the next question.

The “five” in the name comes from the observation that it often takes about 5 iterations to get to the root cause of a problem.

An Ordinary Example

Here’s an example of a 5 why’s problem: a vehicle will not start.

  1. Why? — The battery is dead. (The first why)
  2. Why? — The alternator is not working. (The second why)
  3. Why? — The alternator belt has broken. (The third why)
  4. Why? — The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (The fourth why)
  5. Why? — The vehicle was not maintained according to its recommended service schedule. (The fifth why, and the root cause)

A Knowledge Worker Example

  1. Why do we organize our files (digital or paper)? (Answer: to easily find them later)
  2. Why do we need to find the files? (Answer: to get information in the files)
  3. Why do we need information in the files? (Answer: to do knowledge work for our client)
  4. Why do we need to do work for our client? (Answer: to help them solve a legal problem)
  5. Why do we need to help them solve their legal problem? (Answer: so we get paid and earn a decent living)

The Most Important “Why”

Organizing files is an important part of our law practice, but definitely not the most important part.

The most important thing you do as a lawyer (i.e. knowledge worker) is thinking well — so you can solve problems better (including avoiding unnecessary complexity).

And solving your clients better is how you’ll earn more money.


P.S. If you appreciate these kinds of observations, you might want to read this as well.