Become Your Office’s Sherlock Holmes by Leveraging the 5 Why’s


You don’t treat a bullet wound with a Band-Aid.  You don’t take a bald head to the beach without sunscreen. You don’t tell your kids to idolize Miley Cyrus.  And you shouldn’t take all issues within your office at face value.  A common technique for getting to the root cause of an issue is called the “5 Whys,” and while it isn’t always required to troubleshoot the situation (don’t ask why the printer is out of paper 5 times – just add paper people), it can be a great method when employed properly.

Why use the 5 Why’s?

Simple, you can’t always treat the symptom of a problem and hope that it goes away.  Some issues are systemic and need to be treated at the source.

Why does it work?

Because it requires a deeper understanding of issues that are not necessarily easy to diagnose.  Like a toddler trying to understand the world around them, issues effecting morality or turnover or performance, need to be probed and the underlying issue (s) needs to be addressed.

Why…am I still starting my sections with Why?

Well, I’m trying to be cute.  Not working?  Got it…

Why don’t we have an example?

Good idea! For this example, let’s assume there has been a higher than average turnover rate in your organizations call center over the past 6 months.  Now, continuously having to onboard new employees is expensive, so leadership is demanding a problem to this solution.  You can look to compensate those workers better, maybe get a more talented employee in that position.  But, it’s a low-level position so it is tough to justify better perks. You could look to outsource the department, but it serves multiple purposes and it may not necessarily be the best solution to go “nuclear” on it since it did just start 6 months ago.  Let’s see if we can proposed an alternate solution by implementing the 5 Whys.  It would look something like this…

Why #1: Why is the Call Center Turnover Rate So High?

Based on exit interviews, you determine that the folks are burnt out.

Why #2: Why are they burnt out?

After pulling call center records over the last 6 months, the number of calls to the center are up 48% on average.

Why #3: Why are the calls up 48%?

Calls increased immediately after the latest update to your website.

Why #4: Why are the call rates about the website skyrocketing?

End users are having difficulty finding the functionality they desire.

Why #5: Why can’t the callers find their functionality?

Because of the website redesign, information about the Redskins is now buried under 4 different layers and the Washington Post now only lets me read 10 articles a months without a description!  Stupid Jeff Bezos!*

Why did they move that functionality?

I don’t know – probably because they don’t read my posts and properly implement A/B Testing prior to pushing the new design.  But, that is not necessarily your concern right now.  While you can’t fix everyone, you now have the information and a solution that you can propose to management.  Either rollback the new design, or, if you can determine one or a few specific items users are looking for, move that functionality forward in the design.

Why did I call out Jeff Bezos?

I honestly don’t know.  Jeff, buddy, if you are reading, and I’m sure you are because Amazon is EVERYWHERE – I love you.  Amazon Prime is AMAZING, which is why I called it out in my Take Advantage of Inspiration wherever it Strikes post.  And, it is only getting better, because I found out today that since am a Prime member, I now have free access to 6 months of Washington Post…which will certainly be enough to get me through the Redskins season which will probably be all but over by Thanksgiving.  So, it is really a non-issue right now.

Why oh why is this article still going?

It’s not.  We are done.  Sound off in the comments about your thoughts on the 5 Whys.  Have you tried employing this approach before?  Any success?  Any lessons learned? Thanks for tuning in folks – looking forward to chatting with ya’ll again next week…

Why will it take another week to post an article?

Just stop…

Steve Palmer is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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The five Why’s is a great way to properly ‘define the problem’, chapter one in most public policy textbooks. While teaching policy analysis I had trouble explains to students how to do that. This is so clear. Thank you.


Thanks for this timely and insightful article Steve! I enjoyed it thouroughly and yes, Amazon Prime is Amazing except that now I´m in Mexico City and i find that they don´t deliver here– bummer!