Five Whys – Not One Who


Unlocking the value in an operation requires people. They are the only resource in an organization that can solve problems. There are two specific reasons that it’s necessary to focus problem solving on why a problem occurred rather then who had the problem. Engagement begins with why, and your problem is not a who.

Engagement Begins with Why

All of the problems in your organization fall in three categories: there is no standard (no expectation), the standard was not met or followed (expectation was not met), or the standard is not ideal (expectation does not achieve desired outcome). The foundation for defining any problem starts with a standard.

Engagement for solving problems starts with the first question. What was the expectation? Was it followed or met? Did it achieve the desired outcome? Understanding how the activity compares to the standard leads to the point of cause, a direct cause, and finally, a root cause, that can be solved.

Engagement in solving the problem ends if the first question is “Who did this?”

Clean Your Room

A clean room is a matter of an expectation. The expectation of a 12-year old for a clean room versus that of an adult can be very different. The first step in solving the problem of a clean room begins with setting the expectation (standard). Taking a picture is a good visual for the standard. Then when a problem occurs, it can be compared to the picture. Does this meet the expectation?

Your Problem is Not a Who

Performance management systems are dependent on an expectation, just like problem solving. A person’s roles and responsibilities need to be clearly defined and agreed upon by both the employer and the employee. When this is missing, it falls in the category of no standard, which is the employer’s responsibility.

This is not to say that poor performance shouldn’t be addressed. On the contrary, a clear expectation makes addressing poor performance clearer and more direct.

Problems with operations are rarely a matter of poor performance. Most — if not all — people want to do a good job. Most people want to succeed. Often the systems we have created make it impossible or very hard. 

Recycling a TV with a tube is mandatory in Pennsylvania. The expectation is that you will not put your old tube TV in a landfill or throw it over a hillside in the woods. However, recycling centers are not accepting tube TVs, and those that do can charge as much as $75 to take them. Solving the problem of disposing a tube TV in Pennsylvania can’t start with asking who threw their TV over the hill. There should be a penalty for throwing a TV over the hill, but that will not begin to solve the root cause of the problem. Asking why the TV was thrown over the hill is a much better start.

Finally, when someone starts a problem with who, in most cases that person did not go to the point of cause (where the problem occurred). If they had, they would have seen the why.

Learn more in Patrick’s book, “Facilitating Effective Change,” available online through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. He is also the founder of UTV Advisors, a business consulting firm based in Pittsburgh, PA.


Jeff Swoyer

Jeff Swoyer

Jeff Swoyer

Latest posts by Jeff Swoyer (see all)

Speak Your Mind