Using the 5 Whys to Quickly Address Problems

“Paralysis by analysis” is a risk with problems of all kinds. Consequently, people will often ignore issues or apply so-called band-aid solutions, which do little to address the root causes. Any problem will have multiple root causes, better represented in a tree diagram or fishbone. Unfortunately, these deeper analyses can be complicated and time consuming, when most situations require rapid action.

The solution: Find a single root cause, and address it. This is represented as the “5 Whys” in several frameworks. For any problem, ask and answer “Why?”, using each response as the next question; until you find an appropriate root cause, somewhere around the 5th round.

For example, I spend too much.

  1. Why do I spend too much?  I spend $400/month on groceries.
  2. Why do I spend $400/month on groceries?  I buy prepared meals.
  3. Why do I buy prepared meals?  I don’t have enough time to cook.
  4. Why don’t I have enough time?  I take forever to decide what to make.
  5. Why do I take forever to decide?  I wait until the last minute to prepare.

Generally, an intervention should be possible at every level. One could address the problem at point 3, by finding time savings elsewhere. For those of us who only occasionally love cooking, freeing up time to cook merely reduces pressure, rather than directly addressing the problem.

Externalizing some of the setup, on the other hand, will cut cooking times and shift some of the remaining time to preferable periods. Some ingredients can be chopped, mixed, cooked, and/or portioned well before consumption. Many meals, like soups and stews, can be cooked and frozen, requiring only brief reheating. I like to follow both strategies, as the prepared ingredients work great when I feel like getting fancy, whereas the frozen soups and stews get me through my crazy/lazy days.

You might wonder how 5 leads to 4. Decisions become easier when at least a few options are clear. Do I want soup? Stew? A stir fry of already chopped meats and veggies? Something completely improvised? None of the choices are exclusive, but they give me a simple base to work from. Any batch of food can become repetitive, but one ingredient can be enough to completely change the taste and texture.

This can be too simple for some problems, but the number is far fewer than you’d imagine. So long as you identified a specific cause, any attempted solutions, at minimum, will provide valuable information for other interventions. Any trial should start small, and progress or fail based on evidence.

There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root. – Henry David Thoreau

Find a root, start hacking.


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