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Coaching Concepts: Using the 5 Whys to Solve People Problems

A leadership team I support was struggling with a particular employee and the issues had been lingering for several months. This employee had been a positive team member and quality contributor until recently. But lately, the employee’s performance simply hadn’t been good enough. The quality wasn’t there. Her work was often incomplete. It lacked depth and insight. And, it was starting to impact the team as the other members had picked up the slack and, as a result, was feeling the tension with management.

The management team had already let the employee know improvement was necessary. They had started to meet more frequently and to dial up the necessary feedback and micromanagement. But, the more time they spent together, the more the employee seemed to pull back. In other words, as they ratcheted up their formal communication to try to course correct, the informal and discretionary communication all but stopped. The managers didn’t want to fire her, but they didn’t know what else to do. They felt stuck.

In a session with one of the managers, we discussed the simple-but-powerful 5 Whys process created decades ago by Toyota to help them drill down to root causes of problems in their manufacturing. The process is so simple, however, that it really works with any problem. Just ask “why” five times, each time asking “why” of the previous answer such that you create a sort of cascade of deeper and deeper problem statements. If nothing else, it can deepen your understanding of the variance and dynamics of a problem to know what part you have the time, energy, and resources to address. In other words, you may not always have the capacity to address the root cause but at least understand that you aren’t addressing the root cause.

In this case, the manager took the 5 Whys back to her colleague and they agreed to use it as a structured conversation guide in a meeting with their struggling employee. They introduced the process and the three of them worked together to dig deeper into what was behind the employee’s poor performance.

This was the manager’s message back to me:

“I tried the 5 Whys in my conversation with this person. My boss was with me as well. So, I just introduced the process and put {the performance problem} up on a whiteboard and started asking why. It was so helpful keeping the conversation focused and not so emotional. And after all of this time where we thought the employee was the problem, we discovered she actually didn’t have all the information she needed to do what we had been asking her to do. It was us! It was our problem! And here we were thinking we were going to have to fire her! Anyway, we left the conversation so much clearer and in a much better place. It was great! Thank you!”


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