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Use the “5 Whys” to Understand Employee Problems

Use the "5 Whys" to Understand Employee Problems

When an employee brings you a question or problem, they may not always be saying what’s really on their mind.

As their manager, it’s your responsibility to get to the core of the issue—even if it’s a few layers deep.

One great way to do that is to use a string of “why” questions as a vehicle for uncovering the root cause of the situation, kind of like an insatiably curious kid does. 

This technique is often called the “5 Whys,” referring to the number of why questions it often takes to get to the root of an issue. It’s a key part of Toyota’s famous Production System, and it can help you even get to the bottom of everything from people problems to product problems.

Say an employe comes to you frustrated that they weren’t able to deliver a certain report on time.

Why do you think that happened?” you might ask.

“Well, I just didn’t have enough time,” the employee might say. “I’m totally slammed.”

Why don’t you have enough time?” you could ask.

“A big part of it is that Joe in sales keeps giving me tasks,” the employee might say. That’s something you might not have known.

Why is Joe relying on you for that?”

And so on. Now you’ve discovered a dynamic that is hampering your employee’s work. By asking a few more whys—perhaps the next couple directed at Joe in sales himself—you can uncover the root issue and come up with the proper solution. That’s a lot more effective than trying to solve the issue at surface level by, say, giving your employee trite time-management tips.

Next time an employee brings you an issue, use the 5 whys to understand the problem behind the problem—and develop a real solution rather than smacking on a Band-Aid.

Picture of Alicia Thrasher

Alicia Thrasher

Alicia is cofounder and CEO of Manager360. Previously, she brought her leadership, vision, and strategic oversight to many executive positions, including leading programs for eBay/PayPal, Google, and Anheuser-Busch. She is the coauthor, with Joel Trammell, of The Manager's Playbook: Make Exceptional People Management Your Competitive Advantage.

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