This post appeared first on the EA Coaching blog.

Five Whys is a technique I borrowed from Lean methodology for getting to the root cause of a problem. As shown in the example below, I use the method to identify many possible solutions to a particular productivity problem. 

The simple steps:

  1. Ask “Why do I have this problem? / What is causing this problem?”
  2. Make the answer as concrete as possible.
  3. Ask yourself “Why do I have this answer?/  What is causing this problem?”
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 until you run out of more ideas. (Aim for at least five times.)
  5. Brainstorm solutions to each answer. What specific action might resolve that problem?
  6. Choose 2-3 solutions to test. If these aren’t sufficient, you can go back to test others.

Many problems have more than one root cause, so you may need to repeat the above for different starting questions. 


  1. Why aren’t you exercising?
    • Because it’s difficult to stop mindlessly browsing the web in the evening to start exercising.
      • Possible solution: reduce friction to exercise, such as by having an exercise plan.
  2. Why is it difficult to stop browsing?
    • Because I feel guilty about not getting enough done, so I don’t want to leave and hence admit that I’m not going to do more tonight.
      • Possible solution: Accept that the guilt is a counterproductive cycle.
      • Possible solution: Learn to recognize clues that you’re caught in a bad cycle.
      • Possible solution: Find better ways to relax, so that you aren’t out of steam so much and have something that feels good to switch to.
  3. Why are you feeling guilty?
    • Because I care about what I’m working on, but I don’t prioritize well. So I never get everything done and always feel bad about being behind and not having done enough.
      • Possible solution: Rank tasks by priority and do the most important first.
      • Possible solution: Try aiming for a number of hours instead of tasks.
      • Possible solution: Read Rest in Motion.
  4. Why don’t you prioritize well?
    • Because I’m constantly in reactive mode to what other people want me to do.
      • Possible solution: Let people know when you will get back to them instead of feeling guilty you haven’t responded for a week.
      • Possible solution: Block off time for your deep work and don’t accept meetings during that time.
      • Possible solution: Delegate or say no if you’re not the best person for a job, instead of accepting everything that people ask you to do.
  5. Why are you in reactive mode?
    • Because I don’t have a system for managing tasks.


Many thanks to Jonathan Mustin for transcribing my rambling cursive, and to Nora Ammann for feedback.

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I did my first 5-whys analysis this week. The LW team has just run a big in-person event, and I got all the team together to go through about 4 of these.

One main issue I ran into is that at every step of the 5-whys, there were a bunch of different things that could've caused the problem. Like, a task didn't get done. Why not? Well, nobody knew it was their responsibility for one. For two, the person who saw the problem didn't know who to tell. For three, we hadn't noticed in advance that the problem would arise, and could've fixed it at an earlier point. Etc. Sometimes we got a bunch of branches.

The take we had was that we should pick the cause that we think we "should" have fixed. Another way of putting it is: the one we'd most like to do better on in the future. This was generally good.

(The other thing that was not clear to me at the time but was when we re-read the Lean book, and that you get right in the post, is that you're supposed to make an effort to solve each of the 5 problems, not just the most fundamental one. The idea being that if you regularly do 5-whys, then the fundamental problems will get solved by just lots of problems stemming from them.)

Other direction can be valuable for operationalizing: 5 Hows

I do a lot of this in root-causing outages and system problems.  It can help to frame it as "at least 5 whys", and to recognize that it can branch (some whys have more than one underlying cause).  Some amount of babble-and-prune almost always goes into it, in making HUGE lists of branching and looping causes, then combining, moving, or eliminating the non-controlling ones.

Why aren’t you exercising?

  • Because it’s difficult to stop mindlessly browsing the web in the evening to start exercising.
    • Possible solution:

Maybe I should get up early and exercise.