The five whys,- problem-solving ala Sakichi Toyoda


For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with the tendency towards depression. Powerful negative emotions had a significant impact on my life from an early age. I received psychological counselling through school, but I never felt that they were capable of helping me.

However, I don’t readily accept status-quo. Problems are there to be solved. I picked up meditation in my teenage years and developed a keen interest in the mind and how our brain works. I read and tested everything I could find on cognitive psychology, gestalt therapy and experimental treatment forms such as EMDR.

A common practice in cognitive psychology is the five whys. The technique was initially developed by Sakichi Toyoda to help improve the Toyota manufacturing methodologies but has been proven effective on many types of problems.

The goal of the exercise is to uncover the deepest level of why – the root cause of the problem, otherwise we will be caught in an eternal loop of only treating symptoms.

As designers, the Five Whys is very useful to uncover the actual needs our users have, to make sure we are solving the right problem. Asking the five whys in user interviews is something most design schools teach.

Here are a couple of examples:

I am angry with my partner.

  1. Why? Because she is always late.
  2. Why? Because she doesn’t call and isn’t being merely courteous.
  3. Why? Because she does this a lot.
  4. Why? Because I feel discounted and not valuable.
  5. Why? Because I’m worried that she doesn’t care about me.

Possible solution: tell your partner you are afraid she doesn’t care about you instead of getting angry.

The vehicle will not start.

  1. Why? The battery is dead.
  2. Why? The alternator is not functioning.
  3. Why? The alternator belt has broken.
  4. Why? The alternator belt should have been replaced.
  5. Why? The vehicle was not properly maintained.

Possible solution: improve maintenance routines.

I want to… or do I?

I always wanted to be the best at something; it has been an unhealthy obsession. A good friend once asked me: “how would you feel if you won a trophy for being the best designer in the world?”

Remembering the Five Whys, I asked myself the following:

I want to be the best designer in the world.

  1. Why? To get confirmation that I am good at what I do.
  2. Why? So that I can feel confident about my work.
  3. Why? So that I have a sense of worth and value.
  4. Why? So that I am not always exhausted, striving for that feeling.
  5. Why? So that I can be happy and enjoy my life more.

I find this to be especially useful when paired with the control question, “how would that make you feel?” on each level of why. I asked myself if winning an award would make me enjoy life more?

I quickly realized an award might make me momentarily happy, but ultimately, I would find ways to discredit the people who nominated me. My underlying belief that I am not good at what I do, not worthy or valuable, will always find a way back if I don’t treat the root cause.

Further reading
The Five Whys, Wikipedia
The Five Whys, Psychology today
What is EMDR?

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