February 23, 2017

Know What You’re Marketing with the Five Whys

Recently, our team has been using an exercise called “The Five Whys.”

If you’re in manufacturing or are familiar with the principles of Kaizen or Six Sigma, you may have heard of the Five Whys. The tool dates back to the mid-20th century.

It may come as no surprise that, as with so many process-oriented tools, the Five Whys originated at Toyota, with legendary engineer and systems architect Taiichi Ohno.

We’ve found that the simple exercise has applications beyond problem-solving – but first, let’s explore how the concept was originally designed.

The Five Whys for Problem Solving

The Five Whys was originally built as an exercise that allows a team to identify the root cause of a problem.

It works by starting with a problem, or symptom, and asking “why.” To each successive answer, the investigator asks “why” until you reach a total of five whys.


Taiichi Ohno is often referred to as the father of the Toyota Production System, or TPS.

TPS is built on the precepts of respect for people, respect for processes, and continuous improvement. Its principles launched the concept of lean manufacturing, now so ubiquitous that it’s known simply as “lean.”

Ohno himself described the Five Whys as “the basis of Toyota’s scientific approach… by repeating why five times, the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear.”


Let’s look at a manufacturing example that Ohno described:

1. “Why did the robot stop?”
The circuit has overloaded, causing a fuse to blow.
2. “Why is the circuit overloaded?”
There was insufficient lubrication on the bearings, so they locked up.
3. “Why was there insufficient lubrication on the bearings?”
The oil pump on the robot is not circulating sufficient oil.
4. “Why is the pump not circulating sufficient oil?”
The pump intake is clogged with metal shavings.
5. “Why is the intake clogged with metal shavings?”
Because there is no filter on the pump.

From there, the solution becomes clear: install a filter on the pump.

By driving more towards the root cause of a symptom, we can spend time more efficiently than by only looking at immediate causes.

As a digital agency, let’s look at a digital example. Buffer has a great example:

1. “Why did our site go down?”
Because the database was locked down.
2. “Why was it locked down?”
Because there were too many db writes.
3. “Why were there too many db writes?”
Because this was not foreseen, and it wasn’t load tested.
4. “Why wasn’t the change load tested?”
Because we don’t have a development process set up for when we should load test changes.
5. “Why don’t we have a development process for when to load test?”
Because we’ve never done too much load testing and are hitting new levels of scale.

Now, Buffer has a development process to implement that will help significantly alleviate similar symptoms in the future.

That’s the power of the Five Whys when used in a problem-solving sense. It allows teams to tease out a problem that, on the surface, may not seem to be a problem at all.

As in Buffer’s example, the lack of a load testing process had never been an issue until they reached a certain level of scale.

Driving toward the cause is a long-term solution, rather than a short-term fix.

As a result, TPS has become a mainstay of such process-oriented thinking as lean manufacturing, Kaizen, and Six Sigma.

It does receive some criticism, the main one being that it’s reactive – you have to wait for a problem to find the solution.

That’s the nature of problem-solving. But as a tool for problem-solving, it’s extremely effective.

We’ve also found it a handy tool in a marketing sense, outside of problem-solving.

A New Marketing Application for the Five Whys

What happens if we take the cause-and-effect relationship and modify it? What happens if we think of the “cause” not simply as a cause, but as a motivator?

For us, the Five Whys exercise is a tool for deriving what drives us – and, by extension, what drives our marketing.

Our work runs the gamut from concrete skills to 30,000-ft view thinking. Some projects call for developing remarkably good code. Some call for conveying a certain experience through design while being eagle-eyed nitpixelers (a word I just made up). Some call for strategic thinking that helps businesses recognize opportunities to extend their mission.

Behind every action we take and every client we work with lies a series of motivators. It’s easy enough to list what we do, but it’s much more interesting and useful to consider why we do it.

After all, as Simon Sinek says, “people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” Marketing stands out when it’s based on your motivators.

Here’s what that might look like, taking myself as an example. To put it very simply, I do digital marketing.

1. “Why do you do digital marketing?”
To help businesses and organizations create excellent content.
2. “Why do you want to do that?”
Because I believe in the companies we work with and want them to grow.
3. “Why do you believe in them?”
Because they each have a mission that needs to be empowered.
4. “Why is it important to empower that mission?”
Because those missions directly improve the lives of people, whether that’s customers or beneficiaries or another group.
5. “Why do you want to improve their lives?”
Because I believe people can be happier when even small parts of their interactions with organizations are improved.

In just five questions, I went from “I do digital marketing” to “I believe people can be happier.”

In the problem-solving application of the Five Whys, the next step would be to fix the root cause drawn out by the last question. In this motivation-finding application, the next step is to take action on that deep motivator.

What else can I do to improve the interactions between people and organizations? What content can I create that will do that? What can I do outside of my career – say in my relationships or at my church or in my interactions – that make people happier?

In a marketing sense, what can you do to showcase activities that stem from your motivators?

This works remarkably well for individuals, but it also works for businesses. Why does your business do what you do?

At the end of the exercise, if you end near your organization’s mission, you know you’re doing the right things based on what motivates your business.

Embracing Your Motivator

It’s important to note that the Five Whys is simply a powerful exercise and not a defining business strategy. If you ask each of our team members why they do what they do, you’ll get a different answer every time. The same goes for your business.

No rules says each individual has to have the “right” motivator. The important part is that you find out what motivates you, both as an individual and as an organization – then act on it. We gained a lot of insight when we did this exercise with our team, so why not ask yours?

Jon Saxton

Jon Saxton

Jon recognizes passion and works to convey that in powerful ways. With an eye toward what could be and an understanding of how, he brings energy and ideas to everything he works with.