Have A Difficult Problem? Understand The Root Cause with 5 Whys Approach - used by Toyota Motor

Have A Difficult Problem? Understand The Root Cause with 5 Whys Approach - used by Toyota Motor

Why are you stuck? What's holding you back? Do you have a tough problem to solve - in your career or at home? Is there a hurdle that you can't seem to overcome no matter how hard you try? Maybe it's making a presentation at work? Or maybe you're looking to date, but just can't seem to put yourself out there?

"Ask 'why' five times about every matter." - Taiichi Ohno, Former Executive Vice President of Toyota Motor Corporation

With origins tracing back to Toyota and popularized in modern times by Lean Startup guru Eric Ries, we explore how this approach can be used to identify the possible cause to a a problem - to uncover other emotions and motivations that gets you a deeper self-awareness.


The facilitator throws out a writing prompt, and we scribble furiously for five minutes. “Ok, time!”, she announces.

Few people are still scribbling. “Gimme jazz hands, everyone! Let’s see them all in the air.” Twenty people raise their arms and do “jazz hands” to demonstrate that they are no longer writing.

“We are going to use the same prompt, and we are going to write again”, the facilitator continues, “but this time around, I want you to ask yourself a question. Ready?”

We nod.

“What is the story underneath the story?”

“We will do this once”, she continues, “but when you have some time, ask yourself that question three, four, five times in a row. I know that for me, the first response is complete garbage - a story that I made up - something that sounds reasonable, but is completely false. It is not until I keep digging that I arrive at the actual truth.”

I smile as I recognize this approach. In coaching, a similar exercise is called “The Five Whys”. Ask a question, and once you get a response, ask why. Then ask why again. And again. Five times in a row.

Sakichi Toyoda used this approach to make significant improvements to hand loom, and later, the textile assembly in general. He is credited with the first use of The Five Whys approach. A passionate inventor, Toyoda would pay attention to everyday objects in his environment, and come up with ways of making them better.

When a mechanical problem would arise, asking “why” five times in a row helped to determine not just the surface reason, but the very origin of the problem. Once the root cause was identified, Toyoda could not only solve the problem, but prevent it from happening again. Years later, Toyoda’s son went on to start the world’s largest automaker, what you may know today as Toyota.

When we use the Five Whys in working with people or ourselves, it allows us to arrive at a deeper motivation for pursuing a particular outcome or behavioral change.


Why am I writing this article?
Because I like to write.

Why do I like to write?
Because it allows me to express myself, and understand what I am thinking on a topic.

Why do I like expressing myself and understanding what I am thinking on a topic?
Because I feel like that’s how my brain works. I need to understand why in order to do anything.

Why do I need to understand why in order to do anything?
I don’t know. I enjoy seeing how different things fit together. I like understanding the mechanisms of things. What makes things work. What makes people tick.

Why do I enjoy seeing how different things fit together?
Perhaps, because I am a thing too. And part of seeing how different things fit together, is seeing how I fit into things. How I fit into the universe.


That’s a far cry from where we started. Why am I writing this article? To understand how I fit in with the universe.

Digging deep can be scary for both the client and the coach. The client feels like they are not providing the “correct” response. The coach feels silly asking the same question again and again.

These two tips can help here.

Tip 1:

Ask full questions, incorporating the statements from the previous answer. This makes the questions easier to answer, and makes the conversation sound much more natural, as the actual “why” blends with the rest of the sentence.

A conversation might go something like this:

Why are you here?
I want to become a better coach.

Why do you want to become a better coach?
If I become a better coach, I would be able to help more people get better results and keep clients for longer.

Why do you want to be able to help more people get better results and keep clients for longer?
If I get better results for clients and retain them, I would be making more money.

And why do you want to be making more money?
If I make more money, I would have more freedom, I would be able to do things without worrying about money.

And why do you want to have more freedom?
Because I would have more choices in life, I would have more confidence and have more belief in myself.

This individual went from wanting to become a better coach to wanting to have more confidence and more belief in herself. A very specific goal now has a global and universal appeal. It ties into this person’s life vision.

Tip 2:

Notice and name the discomfort. Call it out. Forewarn your conversation partner that you are about to do something that may appear strange, and would they please go along with it? “Hey, I want to try something here. I want to help you arrive at some of the deeper motivations for the change you seek, and there is this exercise that can help. I will ask the same question five times in a row, and I’d like you to do your best to answer. Are you game?”

Now ask yourself - why are you reading this article?

You know what’s coming next - ask “why” four more times (for a total of Five Whys), and see where you land.

What did you learn? What is the story underneath the story?


Article contributed by Ekaterina (Kate) Solovieva, MA, blogger, extreme endurance and obstacle racer, traveller and health coach.

Read more: Wiring Your Brain for Success

Are you currently at a crossroad right now - thinking if you should continue climbing up the corporate ladder or to leave and set up your own practice? Has an irrational fear been holding you back? Share with us how this approach has helped provide you with new perspectives! Drop us a note at: [email protected].