A Tool for Learning to Unlearn: Internal “5 Why’s”

Discovering root causes is important in problem solving. A tool in identifying root causes is “5 Why’s.” It is used in TQM, Six Sigma, Lean Six Sigma and other process improvement methods where the causes sought are often technical, procedural, systemic and other external causes.

If “5 Why’s” is used for eliciting root causes of a particular human behavior, then it becomes a tool in double-loop learning. Let us illustrate how to apply “5 Why’s” in internal double-loop learning.

Let us imagine that a quality management problem occurred and it was found out that the immediate cause was a person’s failure to perform a specific action assigned to him. The following is an illustration of the method.

    Why 1: Why did you not do action X?
    Answer1: I don’t know how to do it.
    Clarificatory question: When did you discover that you don’t know how to do it?
    Answer: Much earlier.

    Why 2: Why did you accept the assignment when you know you cannot do it?
    Answer: (pause) I cannot bring myself to say that I am not sure I can do it.

    Why 3: Why can’t you tell frankly you cannot do it in the first place?
    Answer (more likely to be elicited in a private conversation with a trusted colleague): I want to appear that I know; I don’t want to appear that I am stupid.
    Clarificatory question: Do you find yourself in this situation often?
    Answer (after some pause): I guess so, yes.

    Why 4: Why do you keep putting yourself in this situation, only to create more trouble for yourself when you yourself know that it often ends up that you are unable to do your assignments?
    Answer (elicited only after the person sees his own pattern of behavior): I really don’t know; it just keeps happening.

    Why 5: Please recall many similar situations in the past, even as far back as your childhood. Study these situations. What do you see or discover?
    Answer (after several days or weeks of recall and reflection): I remember I was so hurt and humiliated and afraid when my mother kept scolding me saying “You are really very stupid and incompetent” every time I cannot do something. I just avoided those feelings next times by not saying anything.

I offer the following observations in relation to the above.

  1. If a BPI team has not established a trustful culture of learning, the team cannot go past Why 1 or Why 2 because the first questions will trigger defensive reactions, rationalizations or even debate that will fail to get at the root causes.
  2. According to Harvard Professor Chris Argyris, BPI cannot really get at many root causes unless individual team members are willing to delve into why they keep on doing what they do or why they keep not doing what they don’t do (Why 2 and Why 3 and up). Argyris calls this “double-loop learning” which he said requires deliberate effort because often people are not aware of the reasons behind their own patterns of behavior.
  3. Deeper levels of “why” (Why 3 and up) require time (it cannot be rushed), a trusting atmosphere (it depends on WHO is asking) and a private or one-on-one situations (it depends on a supportive context). It also requires skills of “conscious living” on the person asking the question and candid reflection on the person answering.
  4. Self-discovery at Why 5 can be cathartic and lead to effective self-healing of the automatic behavior pattern. In the specific example above, it also requires a strong enough foundation of self-esteem to be able to get to acknowledge deep-seated emotional hurts unearthed by Why 5.
  5. The ability to unlearn is an extremely rare skill. A knowledge worker who, through practice, can go deep at Why 4 and Why 5 levels is better able to unlearn.


Listen to Lao-tse:

    “He who knows much about others may be learned, but he who understands himself is more intelligent. He who controls others may be powerful, but he who has mastered himself is mightier still.”

Note that there are embedded links in this blog post. They show up as colored text. While pressing “Ctrl” click on any link to create a new tab to reach the webpages pointed to. Many thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the image used in this blog.

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3 Responses to “A Tool for Learning to Unlearn: Internal “5 Why’s””

  1. Mae Says:

    Thank you for the practical tips on self-improvement! As a supervisor, it is really important to understand and know oneself before becoming an effective coach. This article will help me in dealing with these situations in the workplace and even in my home.

  2. marilou moseley Says:

    thinking of how a woman in a church organization that does not accept women leaders can participate in introducing innovations on church management.

  3. Ronald A. Camit Says:

    The whole article is very helpful. I am looking forward to applying this in my new job role.

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