Recently I met with some Lean practitioners and we spent some time discussing the use of the Five Whys questioning technique for discovering to a root cause or underlying reason. It is a form of laddering interview technique.

The idea is derived from six types of Socratic questions [Paul and Elder] that: (i) clarify thinking, (ii) challenge assumptions, (ii) probe reasons and evidence, (iv) examine alternative viewpoints and perspectives, (v) examine implications and consequences and, also, (vi) ask questions about the question.

The Five Whys approach, as the name suggests, is to repeatedly ask questions beginning with ‘why’ to drill deeper into the various supporting arguments being examined. Often, only a few of the six Socratic question types are actually tested.

One criticism that can be levelled at the Five Whys is that it can be perceived as tedious and even confrontational. You may have experienced young children trying out this technique with their teachers or parents; often resulting in the well-worn phrase “…because I said so.”

An alternative is to mix things up a little bit with a similar interview technique based on the Means-End Chain Theory [Gutman] that was developed to understand buying decisions. The idea [Reynolds and Olsen] is that product or service attributes are associated with functional consequences that have a psychological (emotional) consequence that is tied to an underlying personal value.

So you might get something like this:

Q - Why do you prefer to use a Mac to a PC?

A - Because it is reliable – no “blue screens of death” [attribute]

Q - How does that help you? What’s the impact of that?

A - It’s not going to let me down in the middle of a presentation [functional]

Q - How does it make you feel to have tools you can count on?

A - Confident and professional [emotional]

Q - Why is that important to you?

A – I’ll maintain the respect of my colleagues and clients [values]

It is important that the interviewee uses their own words and that each step of the ladder elicits a concise response. It’ll take some practice but I believe a mixture of all of these ideas can be very powerful.

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AuthorTrevor Lindars