Increase Your Project Success with the 5 Whys Technique

As many parents can attest, getting asked “why?” over and over can be extremely frustrating and annoying.  

Child: “What are you doing?”
Parent: “Putting on my shoes.”
Child: “Why?”
Parent: “Because I need to go outside.”
Child: “Why?”
Parent: “To mow the lawn.”
Child: “Why?”
Parent: “Because the grass is long.”
Child: “Why?”
Parent: “…” sigh

Personally, I love this stage of children growing up.  It shows me they are curious and wanting to learn.  Inside of that little head of theirs, they are coming to grips with the actions we are taking and reason for those actions.  Instead of being annoyed, we need to learn from these children, as they are utilizing a technique that can make our projects more successful.

The 5 Whys Technique

The 5 Whys technique can be utilized to great effect in determining the root cause of a problem.  By asking why in an iterative fashion, you can break down a problem (effect) to the root cause(s). 

Okay, so how does it work?  It is pretty simple really.  You first take the identified problem (effect) and simply ask, “Why?”  Once the answer is given, you reformat the statement to again ask, “Why?”  You repeat that until you have asked “Why?” a total of five times.  What ends up happening at each why is you break down the problem to the next level.  Methodically driving your way from the problem to the root cause.

To further explain, let’s use an example.  Imagine that you are working as a Business Analyst and asked to design an enhancement to the existing software to allow an Administrator to enter the Sales team’s leads into a system.  When asked the return on investment behind the request, Sales states it is too difficult for them to enter the leads the leads themselves.  Now that we know the problem, let’s use the 5 Whys technique to break it down.

With using the 5 Whys you have taken the problem that it is difficult for Sales reps to enter their own leads and broken it down to understand the root cause is because their tablets do not have access to a mobile data plan.  Now that you know the true cause, you can try to solve the problem by first validating the proposed solution is the correct action.

For this example, you could put together a business case laying out some of the different options:

  1. Enabling the software for an Administrator to enter the leads
  2. Adding mobile data plans to the tablets
  3. Enhancing the software to allow for offline creation, with later syncing

It is important as a Business Analyst that you truly remember you are an analyst.  Do not get into the mindset you are simply an order taker.  When all you do is take orders, you are diminishing your value to the company.  

If the Business Analyst would have followed the proposed solution and gathered and built requirements for the Administrator to enter the leads, it likely would have worked.  But I guarantee down the road, a few weeks, months, or years, someone would be trying to solve a problem of reducing the Administrator workload and they would ask the question of why the Administrators and entering in Sales’ leads.  The company would then be solving for a problem you created with your solution.

As you move forward and begin to utilize the 5 Whys technique, remember the way it makes parents feel.  Ensure your customer understands you are asking the questions not to waste their time, but instead to save it.  By fully understanding the root cause of the problem, you will increase the likelihood the solution will work both near and long term.  While they may cringe at all the questions now, in the end, they will thank you!

Written by Jeremy Aschenbrenner, The BA Guide


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