The Art of Project Management: Expert advice from experienced project managers in Silicon Valley, and around the world

Five Whys for Managing Project Dynamics

Five Whys provides a structured yet simple approach to solving problems as they occur during a project and can provide a framework for a team to work through complex problems. It is a simple process at its core.  The Five Whys is a question-asking method used to explore the cause/effect relationships underlying a particular problem. Ultimately, the goal of applying the Five Whys method is to determine a root cause of a defect or problem. Basically the process is to ask why to the problem statement and then ask why to that result again five times, although don’t feel limited to stopping at five if you have not reached the root cause.

It is best to understand clearly the problem statement in order to head in the right direction. Points of consideration should be the current condition or state, available data at hand and the gap in delivery to expectation or performance targets. Taking the time up front to understand the problem statement is a key to success of applying Five Whys; however, it is equally as important to be open to changing this problem statement as you and the team learn more during the application of this approach. What we thought was the base problem at the beginning could very well be what we perceived or projected on to the situation versus the true problem.

Additionally, quantifying and qualifying the problem statement is an important element. It is best to keep the problem statement as brief as possible – a sentence or two.
Examples might be: 

  • Currently entering data in to four different unconnected systems cause task completion to be 30% later than scheduled for completion 
  • The design tool fails to complete its operation twice daily           

The application of Five Whys should avoid turning the emphasis into a Five Whos as a search for blame. It is important to stay focused on the “issue” and not the person, even if you are dealing with human factors or behaviors. By focusing on the question “Why”, we are much more likely to avoid using the “Who” question.

Now that seems straight forward for a “technical” problem in the project, but what we project managers deal with a majority of the time are the human factors, challenges, obstacles, and human behavioral issues.

How should Five Whys be applied to these human factors without the perceived attacking “why” because the why word can and often does cause people to go in to a defensive posture. Often the application of Five Whys in these human factor situations tends to be one on one and not in groups. This is useful as it can prevent the feeling of being out numbered and hence defensive.  

Some factors that may lead to greater success would include:

  • Perform as one on one discussion.
  • Listen, Listen and Listen some more
  • Hear with an open and objective ear (remove those hearing filters. Don’t approach the Five Whys having already formed a conclusion)
  • Use alternatives to “Why”.
    • Examples might be “help me understand”, “what caused that : “, “was there something different that could have been done”, etc. 

The application of Five Whys is a very powerful tool in the project managers took kit and applied in the right circumstances can lead to quick and effective solutions and resolution of human and team dynamics during a project.

– Debra Hein


About the Author

Debbie Hein currently holds a position as a New Product Introduction Program Manager with Cisco Systems. Prior to Cisco, Debbie held various senior leadership roles at Extreme Networks in Engineering Program Management, Business Process Development, Document Control and various other functional groups. During her time with Extreme she led a Product Lifecycle Management and several other critical business process initiatives within the company. Additionally she has been involved with company-wide quote to cash business process, infrastructure and ERP migrations. She has also dabbled in Business Consulting providing services to several firms. Debbie began her career with National Semiconductor where she held postions as an ASIC designer, hardware designer, applications engineer, marketing engineering and project manager. During her tenure with National Semiconductor she was awarded thirteen patents, published many articles, and was a speaker at various symposiums and conferences. Debbie holds a B.S.E.E. degree from the University of Pacific and completed a M.S.E.E. with a concentration in networking and communications theory from Santa Clara University. She has completed training in TL9000, ISO9000/9001, DMAIC, PMI and Design For Manufacturability.
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One Response to “Five Whys for Managing Project Dynamics”

  1. Excellent point about avoiding the blame game, Debra! WHY in the form of “Help me understand . . . ” and “Let’s explore how this occurred . . . ” are tools for root cause analysis. People live in enough fear in the workplace without having to worry that they’ll be scapegoated for an honest mistake. Project teams work in a realm where success is never assured, and problems are just part of the game. We need to make it safe for people to take on challenges knowing that they may fall short. Your sensitivity to that issue is very much appreciated! – Scrappy Kimberly Wiefling, Author, Scrappy Project Management

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