Anyone who has ever dealt with a young child knows the exasperation of their persistent questioning.  In my youth, I can distinctly remember coming close to risking domestic violence charges when my curious younger sister would interrupt every movie a hundred times to ask “Why did he do that?  What does this mean?  Where did she go?  Why?  Why?  Why?”

Children have an innate ability to discovery things about their world.  Whether it is by physical senses, verbal exchange or other manner, it is a vital part of their learning process.  One of their more common techniques is asking probing questions and they are very effective about it.  So why not take a page from that song book for your business analysis work?

Originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda, the “5 Whys” is commonly used in Six Sigma, Kaizen and other process improvement methodologies to determine the root cause of an issue.  The concept is that by repeatedly asking “Why?” you can iteratively refine the answer to the true reason.  The baseline number of iterations is 5, but that is not set in stone and can be taken further.  Take the example below: 

Problem:  Performance on the web portal is too slow. 
  1. Why? – The volume of traffic is too large for the solution to handle.
  2. Why? – There is a larger than anticipated volume of video streaming by end users.
  3. Why? – Demand is growing as well as video content sizes, but the current physical environment cannot seem to manage it.
  4. Why? – The hardware and software is out-dated and not designed to support the current load.
  5. Why? – Initial growth projections were incorrect because video content was not common at the time the solution was designed.  Additionally, the normal 3 year technology refresh did not occur as planned.
We could continue with this discovery by asking more questions, but by the 5th one you will usually find yourself in a position to begin understanding root cause and potential solutions.
It is important to note a few things:
  • Why? doesn’t have to be just that.  In the context of the interview, you can embellish such as “Why are video files growing in size?”
  • You may determine multiple root causes.
  • 5 Whys is often paired with the Ishikawa, or fish bone, diagram to produce more refined causal analysis.
  • The technique does require a skilled facilitator to ensure an objective approach and to help guide the discovery conversation 

So, the next time you find yourself needing to understand root cause try acting like a 5 year old and just start asking “Why?”  Just remember not to whine. 😉