The 5 Why’s: A simple problem-solving technique

5 whys a simple problem solving technique

Do you ever feel like you are going to crack under the frustration and feelings of being overwhelmed by a problem you haven’t been able to solve?

Your solution might have been to head to the fridge for a pint of ice cream—that is a single serving, right?—into the living room to watch some escapist television, or surf on Pinterest for hours, mindlessly pinning your hopes and dreams but never taking any real action, compounding your sense of irritation and incompetence.

Sound familiar?

Nope, it doesn’t to me, either. . .

What you may not realize is there is a deceptively simple technique to get to the bottom of an issue so you can repair it permanently.


It is rarely about Just. One. Thing. 

More often, it’s the combination of all the other issues, too, that puts you over the top:

Clutter covering the counters

Dishes filling the sink

Piles of laundry overflowing the baskets

You hit a wall with a particular problem, such as how to keep the laundry from becoming bigger than Mount Everest, and —BOOM!—it becomes the cherry bomb on top of the proverbial sundae.


It’s because you have multiple Broken Windows

Each of the above items are considered broken windows. Two scientists, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, put this theory forward, building on the 1969 work of a psychologist, Philip Zimbardo. Here is an excerpt from their 1982 article:

Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.


Author Dan Miller wrote recently how this topic relates to your personal life:

If our broken window is being late for work each day, allowing email to pile up, clutter to accumulate on our desk, or procrastinating on important tasks, those small indicators of disorder will signal that things are out of control. And we begin to rationalize bigger issues of allowing our life to be out of control. Those little things undermine our goals because they give us a sense of chaos – that we are victims of circumstances.

Basically, a body in chaos is a body defeated, annoyed and unproductive.


It’s time to identify your Broken Windows

Make a list of the things at home that you stress over, and choose one that you want to tackle.

Is it the trail of clutter left by the kids?

Is it the sink that is never empty?

Is it the endless laundry?

Once you have chosen, you are ready to move forward.


The “Five Why’s” Technique to fix those windows

You know how your kids endlessly ask “Why?”

Now it’s your turn to ask that question.

Businesses use this method—developed at Toyota by Taiichi Ohno—as a means of getting to the crux of an issue so the actual problem can be fixed.

Here is how it works:

Write the problem down for clarity.

Start asking Why, and write down your responses.

Ask Why at least five times to strip away all the symptoms and reach the true cause.

Realize that this line of questioning will often lead in a direction you did not anticipate, so I strongly encourage you to enter this process with an open mind.

You can do this by yourself to start, if you like, but I suggest you work with your spouse. Two heads and perspectives are definitely more helpful!

Once you have pinpointed the real problem, you can create a lasting solution together that works for you and your family.


Putting the Five Why’s to Work for you

Let’s say that getting the mountain of laundry under control is your target. Here is an example on how the problem-solving might play out:

1. The laundry piles up. Why?

2. Because I just don’t have time to do it. Why?

3. Because I work a full time job. Why ?

4. Because we can’t survive on one income. Why?

5. Because we raised our style of living every time our income rose, and we just can’t say no to the kids or ourselves.

Well, that was certainly a surprise.

This went from not being able to keep up with the laundry to a possible root cause of poor financial decisions.

Now, this might have gone down a trail of “no one helps around the house”, which is a completely different problem, with possible solutions here and here.

You just don’t know where it will go until you start asking Why.


As you start using this technique, here are more tips:

Five times may not be enough. Be patient, and also be willing to run through more why’s.

Read the Five Why’s list backwards, that is, bottom to top. Does the progression still make sense?

If you are not satisfied with your result, set your list aside, and go through the process again another day.

This is a new problem-solving tool. The more you practice, the better you will get.


Remember that to truly take care of the problem you’ve got to get to root cause.

Repair that broken window, and you will witness more peace of mind in your life!


Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.  ~Mathew 7:7 (ESV)


Question: What problem has really been bugging you that you would like to solve?


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  1. This post is GREAT, Kim! So much to consider with the “broken window” theory. I’m not sure where it’ll lead, but I definitely need to go there!
    Susan Stilwell recently posted…A Monday Pause ~ WaitingMy Profile

    • So glad you enjoyed this, Susan. Yes, there is so much to consider, and, oh, the places we’ll go when we ask why, why, why. . . :-)

  2. This is such a wise and insightful post. I’m aware of my broken windows, but I love the idea of asking the why’s. Maybe it’s time I start repairing this glass and your advice is a great path to doing that.
    Ilene recently posted…The B SidesMy Profile

    • Always happy to be the one holding the glue, tape, caulking, and chocolate while we repair. Because there must always be chocolate when we are fixing things. :-)

  3. Kim, this post was sent straight to me, from God, through you, today! (Got all that? HA!) truly, though. That strategy is so applicable and gives me a sense of ownership to the possible solutions. (Or maybe, that the solution can NOT come from me, at all?). Thank you for this helpful post!
    Missy recently posted…Good EnoughMy Profile

    • Woohoo! I just love hearing that message, Missy! I am so glad you found so much usefulness and food for thought here today. Thanks for sharing your thoughts-you really encouraged me! Looking forward to seeing you at Allume!

  4. I like the idea of broken windows. I am working on mine. I finally hired someone to clean the house. I ran business and I don’t have the time to clean, so I get anxious and frustrated. That is behind me now. The next plan of attack is get rid of the stuff I don’t know I have, don’t use, etc. I have come up with a plan and that is toss one thing a day out. I have a big bag for donations and the pure garbage goes in the can. I feel so much doing the things that make me feel free.

    • I can feel your relief through your words, Arleen. It’s so hard to be between the proverbial rock and a hard place. I’d love to hear how tossing one thing a day out works for you. I tend to let it build up (bad habit-I know), and then start to toss, toss, toss. Thanks for sharing how fixing your broken windows makes you feel so much freer!

  5. Hi Kim,
    You have given me a lot to consider…Thanks…How are you? waiting to hear what happened with your house…I did cut my manifesto down by 2/3rds…I may take you up on your offer to read it as it is now down to 1000 words.
    Thanks again,
    Dolly recently posted…Alphabet of Thanks: “M”ake “M”emoriesMy Profile

    • Hello Dolly! I can’t help but think of that old tune when I say that (Oh, hello, Dolly, you’re looking swell, Dolly). :-)
      Glad I gave you lots of food for thought. It can be easy to just look at something and tackle it that day. The trick is to make it go away for good. Yes, I’d be happy to read your manifesto. Just keep me posted.

  6. I couldn’t agree more with this post! Sometimes when I am feeling stressed if I de-clutter my life in the literal sense e.g. cleaning or having a clear out, any real issues I have become much clearer for having less artificial stuff stressing me out.
    Kate recently posted…Barbie looks like she needs a cookie.My Profile

    • Sounds like you are getting right to the bottom of fixing those broken windows, Kate. Thanks for adding your thoughts to the conversation.

  7. Kim, you are amazing!! You just gave me some clarity on what I need to do to fix some things in my life! I can’t seem to stay on top of things around the house, and this is definitely why!! I am so glad I met you!!
    Michelle recently posted…Facebook Hashtags: 5 Reasons To Use Them!My Profile

    • I am both tickled and humbled that you got clarity reading this post, Michelle. Your words bring to mind an image of slogging through irritatingly constantly shifting sands, which was a near permanent state in our home when our girls were small. Yes, time to find solid ground! I’d love to hear about your progress! I, too, am thrilled to have met you. The internet is a wonderful place. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences!

  8. {Melinda} This is great, KIm! I can SO relate. We see the problem, but until we get to the root, things will never change. Isn’t that true for just about any problem in life?!
    Mothering From Scratch recently posted…5 Ways Moms Can Find PeaceMy Profile

    • That certainly is true, Melinda. My issue always was—and still is sometimes—that I don’t see the tree for the forest. :-) That is, I see all the cluttery crap, but forget to strip away all the symptoms to find the real problem at the roots. When our girls were little, I never would have thought to use the 5 Why’s to figure out why the house was always so cluttered up, and why we were able to hold blockbuster yard sales every year. Something about just lots and lots of unintentional spending. Who’d a thunk it? :-)

  9. I must say that I have a few broken windows to fix and I like your ideas on how to repair this problem. I do need to ask the question why. Thanks for your wisdom today and blessings to you!

  10. I had to chuckle Kim because I’m kind of going through that right now but it’s out of my control which is that much more frustrating.

    It’s my internet provider and I seem to lose my connection just about this time everyday and it’s out the rest of the night. No one will tell me why or when it will be fixed and we’re now into day six.

    LOL!!! I get what you’re saying here though and I love this advice. I’m going to have to breath more and go through this exercise numerous times, maybe more then five, the next time it goes out.

    “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. ” I’m still waiting, somewhat patiently! 😉

    Thanks for this one.

    Adrienne recently posted…WordPress Safety And Security Issues (Infographic)My Profile

    • You have my sympathy, Adrienne! What an annoying thing to have happen. We live out in the boonies and our internet is sooooo slooooow. As a friend of mine reminds me, “Yes it’s a real first world problem you have there.”
      Glad you enjoyed the encouragement, and I hope it helps you get to the bottom of whatever is complicating your life. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  11. What a great technique – thanks for sharing. We forget to ask ourselves good questions.

    My wife, Lori, and I use a similar concept of asking the same question over and over to get to the “real” answer. We ask ourselves, “What’s important about XYZ to me (or you)? With the answer – “abc”, we then ask “Well then, what’s important about “abc” to me (or you)? And we continue to drill down till there’s nothing left and we have the “real” answer.
    Robert recently posted…Do Silly Videos work?My Profile

    • I like your question, Robert. I know I said it before, but quality questions give you quality information. Thanks so much for sharing. It’s nice to meet Lori’s other half!

  12. Wise insight Kim, I just love the Broken Window Theory! :) I’ve been stressed out lately and I need to know my stressors and as myself WHY! :)

    Visiting you from the Happy Wives Club Link Up.
    Mai recently posted…It’s Marriage Mondays Link-Up Party Time!My Profile

    • Glad you found this helpful, Mai! It can be uncomfortable to get to the bottom of things, but it is only there we can begin to fix what isn’t working. Good luck with your questioning!

  13. I love your five whys technique – oh and another one if you can’t actually control the problem (like Adrienne and her Internet connection) “Why am I putting up with this?” and find another way out.
    Ana recently posted…Are You Destroying Your Chances Of Lasting Love?My Profile

    • Yes, yes, Ana! Finding another way out is a good thing. Here in the boonies, we have no really good choices for internet. :-( However, I can choose how to respond. I can write offline. I know—what’s that? :-) —or I can go do something else.
      Your comment reminds me of an internet outage I had. I got really, really, frustrated, and then decided to go to a local farmer’s market to get a change of scenery, some yummy produce and some relaxation. While I was driving, I came up with the idea for my free ebook, Practicing Gratitude and Discovering Joy!

  14. Well I love this! First because it’s useful but second because I read a management book about the Ritz Carlton that included this concept which was also a whole chapter in my life coaching training and I wrote a blog about it as well – and I love seeing Universal Truth, from a totally different angle but still helps the same way.

    LOVE THIS! Thanks for an awesome post.

    Maggie Reyes recently posted…The Real Truth Behind Successful Marriages – The Declaration of You Blog Lovin’ TourMy Profile

    • Wow. You leave me practically speechless, Maggie. Welcome to my happy corner of the world! I have a deep background with business, especially family run businesses (was involved in two for a total of 22 years). I have always found that many of the business and leadership principles are equally applicable to family relationship life. I am so glad you found this helpful!

  15. This blew me away…so close to some of the problems I’m struggling with…I have some “whys” to ask myself.
    Pamela recently posted…The Shelter of GraceMy Profile

  16. Thank you, Pamela. I am so glad you came on over for a visit! I pray you find answers to your whys and are able to create solutions that work!


  1. […] The 5 Why’s: A simple problem-solving technique […]

  2. […] If you’re not sure where else you’d go or what you’d do instead, consider these interesting eleven alternatives, or read Better Than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree. To help get to the bottom of your Why, go through this exercise here. […]

  3. […] If you’re not sure where else you’d go or what you’d do instead, consider these interesting eleven alternatives, or read Better Than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree. To help get to the bottom of your Why, go through this exercise here. […]

  4. […] If you’re not sure where else you’d go or what you’d do instead, consider these interesting eleven alternatives, or read Better Than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree. To help get to the bottom of your Why, go through this exercise here. […]

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