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The 5 Whys: Discover the Root of Your Problem

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by: Adam Steinberg (@adams472)
29 April 2014

Do you constantly find that your team is fighting fires and can’t scale? Are you running from one problem to another? And do you find the same issues keep arising time after time?

These symptoms are a strong indication that you have a problem at the foundation of your processes. But once you’ve identified you may have a problem, how do you identify the crack in your foundation so you can address the root cause of the issue, rather than just the symptom?  

The Five Whys is a powerful methodology, originally developed by Toyota, for identifying the core, fundamental cause of your problems.  While technical teams, such as software developers, were the early adopters of “The Five Whys,” it has broader implications that can help marketers.

How does the Five Whys methodology work?  Here’s an example from a software-development scenario:

Problem: Our website is broken.

  • Why? A JavaScript library wasn’t being loaded correctly.
  • Why? We weren’t including the proper code library on the website.
  • Why? The library was accidentally deleted before the last website update.
  • Why? We don’t have documented testing procedures for our website.
  • Why? We aren’t measured on website uptime and availability.

See how we went from a broken website to a fundamental, root-cause issue? Suddenly, we’ve identified that uptime isn’t important enough to be measured. Because of that, we don’t have any processes to support uptime.

How can marketers use the Five Whys?  Let’s take a look at a common scenario for marketing teams.

Problem: Our email conversion rates have declined.

  • Why? Clicks per open are constant, but our email opens have decreased 20 percent.
  • Why? Unsubscribes increased 50% last month. We have fewer email contacts.
  • Why? We started sending an additional newsletter every week.
  • Why? We assumed that performance grows linearly as we send more email.
  • Why? We didn’t test the effects of additional email sends on a small set of our email contacts.
  • Why? We don’t have a data-driven culture that tests assumptions.

(In this case, we asked a sixth “why” question so we could drill down ever deeper.)

So, when should you use the 5 Whys? We use it any time we have an unexpected result – good or bad.

Speaking of which, the Five Whys might seem like overkill to your team at first. But once you go through this exercise and eliminate the root-cause of your problems, your team will be hooked. 


Related Blog Posts:

1) “10 Questions to Ask to Help You Enhance Your Email Program

2) “3 Books That Will Expand Marketers’ Minds

3) “Will Your Digital Marketing Strategy Rock This Year? 3 Questions to Ask




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