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Solve Problems by Combining the Five Whys with the Drill Down Technique

The Five Whys and the Drill Down Technique are two methods to identify and understand the root causes of problems that hold up a growing business. Both have the advantage of being simple and easy to use. Neither will require you to spend time drawing complex diagrams or remembering counter-intuitive strategies. (You won’t need a stack of folders or a willingness to follow David Allen, for example.) That simplicity though, masks weaknesses. Used alone, the Five Whys can create results that are too disorganized to point usefully to solutions and may suggest false trails. The Drill Down Technique helps to lay out the causes of problems clearly so that issues can be addressed but it doesn’t always help to uncover those causes.

Used together, however, the two methods can both identify the causes of problems and plan a path for their resolution. Here’s how it works:

Principles of the Five Whys

The Five Whys is said to originate with the Toyota Production System, the methodology that introduced “management by walking around” and “just in time” production. The idea is to use constant questioning to move beyond a surface problem to identify the root causes of an issue. The method is most commonly used by large organizations in group brainstorming sessions. The UK’s National Health Service, for example, recommends the Five Whys as  way of improving efficiency in patient care.

How the Five Whys Work

The methodology is very simple. The group leader (or in the case of a freelancer or entrepreneur, the entire one-man team) writes down the problem then asks why that problem happened. The word “Why?” is used to open up the problem so that its essential elements can be treated individually and in a manageable way.

When someone offers a solution, the leader than asks why that event happened. He or she then queries the cause of that event and so on until the root cause is identified and a solution becomes clear.

Although the method is called the Five Whys the number of questions that need to be asked to solve a problem may be larger or smaller than five.

Sample Methodology

The website of Company A has high traffic flow but receives few requests for quotes.

The team leader writes on the board:

Problem: The website has a low conversion rate. Why?

The team’s IT leader points out that actually few people even reach the quote page. The bounce rate of 73 percent means that only a small portion of visitors moves past the home page.

The team leader writes on the board:

The bounce rate is 73 percent. Why?

The sales manager then points out that for the last few months, most of the sales department’s efforts have focused on contacts made at conferences rather than through the keyword-targeted advertising or search engine optimization that the site was originally built for.

The team leader writes on the board:

Sales targets don’t match website targets. Why?

That question could then lead to a discussion of the relative merits of conference contacts over SEO marketing and a decision to either change the direction of the sales team or to redesign the website.

In this case, the problem needed no more than three questions to reach the core of the problem but other problems may require more or less questioning.

Principles of the Drill Down Technique

The principle of the Drill Down Technique is similar to that of the Five Whys, which is why the two methods work so well together. The aim is to break a problem down to its constituent parts so that a solution can be planned for each of the problem’s elements.

How the Drill Down Technique Works

While the Five Whys is often used in groups, the Drill Down Technique is more commonly used by individuals.

The entrepreneur or freelancer writes the problem on the left side of a large sheet of paper. To the right of the problem, he or she writes the details that make up that problem. For each of those details, the problem-solver describes more details, continuing the breakdown across the page.

Sample Methodology

A problem analysed using the Drill Down Technique might look something like this:



Clients complain of a lack of responsiveness


Too busy to send emails. Bad timekeeping.  
Failure to get the work completed in the expected time. Unrealistic scheduling.


Combining the Two Methods

While the Five Whys provides a tool for cracking open a problem, the Drill Down Technique delivers a plan for neatly laying out the elements that make up a problem, identifying parts that need more research, isolating root causes and opening up space for solutions.

Instead of writing the problem at the top of a board, placing the question “why?” next to it and instead of working down the board, the team leader can work horizontally:

  • He or she writes the problem on the left of the board and uses the Five Why’s questioning to produce not one cause but several. He or she then writes those elements next to the problem and adds the Five Whys’ question to each.
  • When the team provides answers to each of those problems, they too are questioned and the process continues across the board until the root cause is identified.

The benefits of combining the Five Whys with the Drill Down Technique is that the questions provide a way of identifying causes of problems while the drilling down ensures that all causes are identified and laid out clearly.

The combination does, however, have limitations. Although the process identifies problems, it does nothing to propose solutions. A sales team that had recognized that efforts were focused in one direction while the website was targeted towards a different set of prospects would still have to decide whether to change the site or the team’s direction. And a freelancer struggling with time management would still need to figure out how to better assess their productivity — and improve it.

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