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How I used Five Whys

The Business Analysis Book of Knowledge (BABOK) from IIBA describes Five Whys as ‘a question-asking process to explore the nature and root cause of a problem.’

Although the Five Whys technique has its origins in root cause analysis for problems, it is also a great tool to gather information and learn a new business, project or process.

Two years ago, I joined a new company as a Senior Business Analyst. I was charged with supporting a critical business unit in an intense, fast-paced environment where all documentation was out of date. In a short period, I had to learn the business unit comprehensively: processes, people, and technology. The role was a huge leap forward for me; I became overwhelmed and anxious in the first few weeks.

Here is how the Five Whys technique rescued me.

I started with five basic questions about my business unit

  1. What does the business unit (BU) do?
  2. What are the critical processes within this BU?
  3. What applications does this BU use?
  4. What systems are upstream to this BU’s systems and what systems are downstream?
  5. What are the biggest pain points for this BU?

For each of these questions, the first answer I got was one or two statements. To each answer, I posed a ‘Why’ iteratively, which built up on information I was receiving. After an average of five times of asking Why, I was able to get coherent and detailed information for each original question.

For example, take the first question:

What does the Business Management business unit do?

Business partner answer: ‘We analyze dealer financial data and report on corporate and dealer performance.’

My 1st Why: ‘Why is this analysis important?’

Business answer: ‘After our analysis, we send several types of reports to four major departments: C-suite Leadership, Market Representation team, Incentives group, and Field Managers. Other groups may request analysis and reports from us from time to time. If we have not done it in the past, we do the needed research and report on the analyzed data’. The business partner then went on to describe the various reports that they send to each department.


My 2nd question was a disguised-Why: ‘What happens if C-suite does not get the results or reports promptly?’

Business’ answer: Leadership needs Corporate and Dealer Performance reports (CPR, DPR) to assess profitability, year over year performance, Financial Trends, specific Business Center performance, etc. to keep a finger on the pulse of business as it is happening month-to-month. Without visibility to this key data, leadership cannot make decisions in time that will avert danger or to capitalize on opportunities that are opening up. Leadership uses our data to meet Legal and Regulatory requirements as well, such as create annual reports, releasing information to the board of directors, stakeholders or the government (in enquiries). Business went on to give more details on how the Business Management group’s analyses are used.

My 3rd Why after I reviewed the DPR: ‘Why is this DPR of value?’

Business went on to explain how this report is primarily used by Field and the Market Representation team to drill down into the reasons as to why one or a group of dealer(s) are not meeting sales targets and how to help them improve. Do they need more training? Are the facilities well kept? Is the dealer spending enough on marketing? Is the demographics of the area changing? Should we prepare to terminate this dealer? There could be a slew of other questions, depending on the Sales Locality and Trade Zone of the dealer.

My 4th Why may have been to learn terms specific to the business unit or learn about calculations used by the business or in the reports. I could also get the reason as to why a parameter is being calculated. In some of these conversations, we uncovered that a few calculations were being done in a manner different from the guidelines of the benchmarking organization. Therefore, for these parameters, comparison with a competitor was akin to comparing apples vs. oranges.

If I got all the information I need before the 5th Why was reached, I might have used it to ask “Why don’t we go for lunch now?” Just kidding, but you get the picture. I can say this, though: it is important for a BA to ask Whys creatively instead of strictly follow a technique with the word ‘Why’ prefacing each question, which will get monotonous.

At the end of four weeks, using the Five Whys technique had tamed my fear of the new role and helped fill what seemed like large shoes when I first joined. It was a relief and a feeling of triumph to establish my credibility in both IT and the business unit. In the role of a Business Analyst, all of us want to learn and have to learn rapidly. Knowing about a technique is of little use to us unless we find a way in which each of us can customize it to fit our individual need. Also, remember – there are no limits on what technique you can use in which phase of a project or program. Wish you the best in finding your favorite technique.