Systems Thinking: Using the 5 Whys

By Linda Fisher Thornton

In my Applied Ethics Class last fall, I introduced my students to the Five Whys. This is a simple and valuable tool for getting to the root cause of problems. We may think we understand why something happened but when we “fix” whatever we think is the sole cause we don’t always get the intended result. The reason for that is that problems tend to have multiple causes. They happen in the context of multiple processes. Singling out one “cause” is rarely sufficient for understanding what really happened.

I’m sharing these resources to help you improve your thinking. Even if you are already familiar with the 5 Whys, you will find the video on the multiple causes of the sinking of the Titanic compelling.

Using the 5 Whys

First, review the Key Concepts of Systems Thinking and the Levels of Systems Thinking Maturity at Thwink.org. 

Second, watch this MindTools video on the 5 Whys and read the article which explains the origin of the method.

Third, learn about root cause analysis at Tableau.com, paying particular attention to the example of the 5 Whys.

Fourth, watch this Think Reliability video on How to Conduct a 5-Why. (Exploring Why the Titanic Sank)

How To Use This Technique

The 5 Whys is relevant in any setting where you need to fully understand why something happened. Use it when people come to you for help with problems. Share it with your project team. Use it to begin to unravel society’s biggest problems and identify solutions. Using the 5 Whys reveals a much more complex landscape than we can see with a “cause and effect” mentality.

Thwink.org shares Einstein’s insight on the kind of thinking we need: “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels” — Albert Einstein. Using techniques like the 5 Whys will help us adapt in a world of increasing complexity and change. As our problems increase in complexity, so must our thinking.

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