On April 16, Robert Rose published an article for the Content Marketing Institute describing a concept in problem solving called the “5 Whys.” Developed by Sakichi Toyoda, it was originally used within Toyota Motors during the evolution of its (now) famous Toyota Production System. It has since been adopted by a number of project management and other processes e.g., Six Sigma.
Using the 5 “whys”
The classic process is simple. It’s about stating a problem, and then asking the “why” question 5 times to get to the “root cause” of the problem. Rose uses the following example (from Wikipedia):
The vehicle will not start. (The problem)
Applicability for Marketers
Marketers can use the “5 Whys” process to understand better why they have been reticent to specifically reach out and promote their products to baby boomers and older customers in an estimated $2 trillion market. In a recent Journal of Active Aging, our contemporaries, Dick Ambrosius and Helen Foster, wrote, “To plan for success in serving the age 50-plus consumer majority, businesses, nonprofit organizations and governments must learn to view the market through the lens of reality, not the distorted view seen through the youth lens of yesterday. For example:
By adopting new strategies and tools grounded in reality, businesses and organizations will insure success in a market dominated by older consumers.”
A very simple exercise follows:
Problem: We’re not getting a larger share of older markets.
So, the root cause in this case is that marketers think they’ll turn off younger potential customers and haven’t executed a trial ad campaign to test that conclusion and attract older customers. They can’t accurately predict whether older customers will purchase their products, or the greater problem this will eventually lead to an even slower growth rate as the population ages at a rapid pace. So, fix the root cause and you can likely avoid the eventual problem.
According to Wikipedia, you could take the questioning for this example further to a sixth, seventh, or higher level: the "5" in "5 Whys" is not gospel. The key is to encourage the marketer to avoid assumptions and logic traps and instead trace the chain of causality in direct increments from the effect through any layers of abstraction to a root cause that still has some connection to the original problem. Note that in this example the fifth why suggests a broken process or an alterable behavior, which is typical of reaching the root-cause level.
It is interesting to note that the last answer points to a process. This is one of the most important aspects in the “5 Why” approach - the real root cause should point toward a process that is not working well or does not exist. A key phrase to keep in mind in any “5 Why” exercise is "people do not fail, processes do."
There is, however, some criticism of using the “5 Whys” to help get to the true causes of problems. The criticism is “it’s too basic a tool to analyze root causes to the depth that is needed to ensure that they are fixed.” Reasons for this criticism include (again adapted from Wikipedia):
These can be significant problems when the method is applied through deduction only. On-the-spot verification of the answer to the current "why" question before proceeding to the next is recommended to avoid these issues. To the victor belong the spoils.