Problem solving usually isn’t cut and dry; most of the time we might temporarily solve a problem but never fix the root cause, so the problem persists. In this short article, I am going to share with you an extremely useful method I learned from the book The Lean Startup, which has really helped me when trying to solve a problem.

The method is called the five whys. One of the reasons I like it so much is because it is an extremely easy and effective method to understand and to use. It is called the five whys because the idea is to ask why over and over again until you get to the root of the problem. Typically it takes five whys, hence the name, but sometime it takes less and sometimes it takes more. The best way to explain the five whys is with an example.

We will use a normal approach to problem solving first, then use the five why approach.

A regular approach to problem solving:

Let’s assume we have a laptop that won’t charge. When the laptop is not charging our first instinct would be to ask, why is it not charging? After some experimentation we might realize that the charger works and it is the actual laptop that is broken. Knowing this, we send the laptop to get fixed. All is well for a couple months but then all of a sudden we have the same problem. What went wrong? The answer is simple; we didn’t dig deep enough to find the root cause of the problem.  In our lazy problem solving approach we never identified the root cause leading us to waste money and still have a broken laptop.

The Five Whys Approach:

Now let’s take the same problem as before but apply the five whys approach. Again, the laptop won’t charge so we ask; why won’t it charge? We again determine that it is the laptop itself and not the charger. We then ask; why did the laptop break? We find out it was due to deformed materials inside the laptop. We again ask; why are the materials deformed? We find out it was due to extreme overheating. Once again we ask; why did it overheat? We find out it overheated because it is poorly designed and couldn’t cool itself quickly enough. Now we are at the root of the problem; the laptop stopped charging because it has a poor cooling system and the extra heat causes the parts to deform. Knowing this we can now get the laptop fixed and it will not break again because we know why it broke in the first place. Simply by providing supplementary cooling we will prevent the problem from happening again. This is why the “five whys” approach is so important; it finds the core of the problem which allows us to permanently solve the problem.

This is a very simple approach but very powerful! Give it a try in your life and you will quickly see the benefits it provides.

As previously stated the five whys comes from the book The Lean Startup. This is an amazing book written for people starting or already running a small business, however, it also provides invaluable information on problem solving, experimenting with new ideas, and ways to test the effectiveness of those ideas. If any of this interests or applies to you, I highly recommend giving this book a read.   

Have any questions or comments? Meet me in the comment section to discuss further!


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