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The Five Whys (FON1-V16)


This video introduces the five whys technique as a way to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying particular problems.

Duration: 00:04:52
Published: April 13, 2022
Type: Video

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The Five Whys



Transcript: The Five Whys

[Text and graphics illustrate and emphasize the spoken words throughout.]

Narrator: The five whys. When you have a policy problem to explore a helpful technique to use is the five whys. This is a great exercise to start early in your research and analysis. When you have an idea of the problem and stakeholders but need to understand more you can do it by yourself to get a feel for the scope of an issue, or you can make it a more formal initiative with several iterations and robust stakeholder engagement. The five whys is used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem. All you have to do is ask why five times. Each answer becomes the next question and leads you to the root cause or causes of the problem. The big question you are trying to answer is "why does the problem occur?" One thing to note is that like most analyses, the results of this activity will depend on the perspectives and mindsets you bring to it.

Let's work through an example to give you a feel for how it might work. Even with very little knowledge, you can still try it out. The government of the day would like to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by promoting the use of electric vehicles. Supply is available, but demand is low. In order to propose viable approaches to the problem we first need to understand why that is so. It starts with our high-level question, why is there low demand for electric vehicles? Some possible answers are range anxiety, big trucks are "cool" and high cost.

[As each reason is proposed, a flow chart is formed, stemming from the original question to each answer.]

This first level gives us some hypothetical answers to our base question. Each of those answers then becomes a second-level question.

[ Lines from the three first levels snake out to new bubbles reading "lacking charging infrastructure, cold Canadian winters deplete batteries faster, batteries are expensive, small volume of sales, why are trucks "cool?"]

As we pursue the three hypotheses, we can begin to understand range anxiety and the cost equation, but we also discover we have no idea why trucks are cool. So, we can't pursue that angle until we get more information. For the purposes of this example, let's look a little closer at the cost side.

We have two answers to the high-cost question. However, a small volume of sales is a circular economic issue that might not offer any solutions.

[A new line draws from "small volume of sales" to "no economies of scale."]

So, let's look at the other possibility. Why are batteries so expensive? Let's say our research indicates that the reason batteries are expensive is because they use rare and expensive materials.

[A new bubble reading "Use of rare materials" pops under "batteries are expensive" and a new question forms above it.]

This leads us to our next question. Why are materials so rare? Our analysis reveals two possible answers to that question. The first is that they may not be rare, just hard to find access. The other is that they are physically rare on the earth.

[Both answers flow out of "use of rare materials."]

These might be root causes and require further evidence to determine which is more important. But even without further evidence, we can begin to ask what might be done to address the root causes. If the first case is true, they're hard to access, maybe we need a better mining approach that might have technology or international trade implications.

["Better mining?" flows out of "difficult to access."]

In the second case where the materials are physically rare, the question becomes are there technology alternatives available?

["Are there technologies alternatives?" flows out of "physically rare."]

This leads us to begin to formulate a couple of policy options for consideration. Support the mining industry and support battery research, both of which would need further research and consideration of the political environment.

[Both answers flow from their perspective questions.]

This is a good example of how the technique can uncover unexpected insights. Who would've thought that supporting the mining industry might be an option for increasing the adoption of electrical vehicles?

If we zoom back out to the whole path we just went down we can see the logic in this one line of inquiry. If we zoom out even further to see the paths we did not go down, we might be able to make some connections. Looking at the range anxiety question again, we see that the cold may deplete batteries faster. That seems to connect to the idea of supporting battery research. Now we have identified two policy options, support the mining industry and support battery research and have a connection to explore for the next iteration.

[On a zoomed-out version of the flow chart, the branches off "range anxiety" and solutions from "high cost" are circled as a line connects them.]

There are multiple hypotheses you can explore, and I have only followed one path to five levels, but even so, we now have two potential policy ideas and a connection to explore in your policy options analysis.

The method provides no hard and fast rules about what lines of questions to explore or how long to continue the search for additional root causes. The outcome depends upon the knowledge and persistence of the people involved. Don't get stuck on right or wrong. Let yourself be creative and try on different thinking hats. Run through the process quickly, and then come back to it and run through it again with more knowledge. Follow the paths that make sense to you and your stakeholders. Finally, don't get hung up on five, ask why as many times as you need to get to a reasonable root cause.

[A winding trail with "why?" repeatedly spread throughout it leads to a "root cause."]

[The CSPS logo appears, it's book closing. Text reads ""]

[The Government of Canada logo appears, fading to black.]

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