Deep Dive Into the Why-Way

by Christiaan Grové

June 22, 2022


Every company has barriers to overcome, problems to solve and decisions to make. Currently, problem-solving is still predominantly a managerial role. But, with the world moving towards self-organization, decentralization and hybrid workplaces, problem-solving is becoming a critical requirement for everyone. 

A common mistake when dealing with problems, is to leap into action before understanding and properly defining the real problem. A problem exists when there is a gap between what is (actual) and what should be (target).  

Once the problem has been identified and defined, the next step is to attempt to follow a process of finding solutions. When a company starts with problem-solving activities and aims to build capability throughout all levels, a standard method and practical tool should be chosen to ensure that everyone is on the same page.  As the company matures in problem-solving, the techniques could be adapted, and more freedom can be given to certain teams or specialists to explore alternative methods. 

“The leader’s job is to develop people – If the employee hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.” 

John Shook, 2008 

To ensure that you understand what a problem is about, before you start solving it, you can ask probing questions to gather all the necessary information needed.   

    • What happened / was done?  
    • When did it happen / does it usually happen?  
    • Where did it happen?  
    • Who was involved / was responsible?  
    • Why did it happen? 
    • How did it happen / is it done / much does it cost? 

This reduces any assumptions which might send you down the wrong track and eliminates jumping to conclusions. From here, the information obtained can be systematically analyzed. 

Understanding Cause-and-Effect  

When you cut a weed off, just above the ground, it grows back quickly, as you have not removed the root. Similarly, when you are faced with recurring problems, you can be assured that you have not addressed the root cause of the problem – you need to dig deeper!  

When you act before doing a proper analysis of the problem, it results in short-term improvements that are not sustainable and causes even more variability in the process. In this case, the symptoms were treated, and not the root cause(s) of the problem. It is critical to study the information at hand and understand the cause-and-effect relationships.    

    • Effects (or symptoms) are the starting point of any problem-solving process. These are the things that we see, observe and experience. When you treat the effects, it is a quick fix that only results in recurring problems.  
    • Problems can be defined by asking probing questions and understanding the nature of these effects. Only when the problem, and all its related effects, have been identified can a proper analysis be done to identify all the underlying (hidden) root causes.    
    • When root causes are effectively addressed, the problem, and its related effects, should either be significantly reduced or eliminated. 

The Practice of Asking “Why?” 

Unfortunately, applying the theory of cause-and-effect does not always suit a high-paced environment, where the pressure is on, and performance is expected! One approach is to instill the Why-way as an everyday practice that eventually runs almost on autopilot amongst all employees.     

The Why-way is a very simple and effective approach to explore the cause-and-effect relationships of a particular problem. It is an iterative, interrogative technique that helps us avoid superficial quick fixes and jumping to conclusions. It is also particularly helpful when we want to challenge bureaucracy, systems, and controls that we have been following blindly.  

The primary goal of the Why-way is to determine the root cause of a problem by repeating the question “Why?” each answer forms the basis of the next question. The method provides no hard and fast rules about what line of questioning should be explored, or how long the search for additional root causes should continue. Thus, even when the method is closely followed, the outcome still depends upon the maturity, knowledge and persistence of the people involved.  

Observe the example of a common problem: The vehicle will not start. 

Note that the fifth why suggests a broken process or an alterable behavior, which is indicative of reaching the root-cause level.  Always keep in mind, “People do not fail, but processes do!” 

Inexperienced problem solvers will often observe classical answers such as, not enough time, not enough money, or not enough manpower. These answers may be true in certain cases but are mostly a result of being too lazy to analyze further. In some instances, it could even be indicative of a psychological safety issue, where people are simply too scared of the consequences when they admit to the real reasons.    

To steer clear of these superficial answers, always ask the follow-up questions to any reason given:

    1. Can it happen? The reason given must be possible in theory.
    2. Did it happen? It can be proven with practical investigation, factual evidence, or data.

If you can answer yes to both questions, you can continue with the questioning.


The questioning could be taken further to a sixth or seventh level, but usually three to five iterations are sufficient to get to the root cause. The key is to encourage the problem-solver to avoid assumptions and logic traps. Instead, they must trace the chain of causality in direct increments – from effect to a root cause that still has some connection to the original problem. From here, action can be taken, and improvements can be monitored until the desired state has been achieved.  

Complex Problem-solving 

The Why-way can be applied for day-to-day obstacles and busting bureaucracy but when it comes to more complex problems, it’s quite unlikely there’s a single root cause. In fact, for most recurring problems and trends, there will be multiple root causes. The Why-way and cause-and-effect relationships are still the foundation of problem-solving, but for complex problems, it must be repeated by asking a different sequence of questions each time, until all the root causes have been identified.      

There are a few approaches that can assist when dealing with complex problem-solving.   


Ishikawa Diagram  

Ishikawa diagrams (also called fishbone diagrams or cause-and-effect diagrams) have been created by Kaoru Ishikawa (1968).  It is useful in problems where multiple root causes exist.   

A problem statement is defined (the ultimate effect) and all related causes are analyzed (with the Why-way) and categorized under various headings:  

    • People: Human-factor related causes in the process.  
    • Method: Requirements-related causes such as policies, procedures, rules, regulations, and laws.  
    • Equipment: Equipment, computers, tools, etc. used in the process.
    • Material: Raw materials, parts, information, etc. used in the process.
    • Measurement: Data generated from the process that is used to evaluate its performance.
    • Environment: Physical conditions such as location, time, and temperature.

When using the Ishikawa diagram, the Why-way is applied repetitively.  Each time, the question, “Why does the problem occur?” is asked, and each answer is written under the appropriate category. This should be repeated until all possible root causes have been identified.  


The A3 Method  

A3 is a structured problem-solving and continuous improvement approach that is applicable to larger (even more complex) problems. It derives its name from the central idea, which is to collate and capture all information related to a specific problem as concisely, yet as completely, as possible on a single A3 size paper.   

The problem-solving process is indicated on the A3 template below and typically includes eight steps.  

In summary 

As the workplace is shifting to a more decentralized operating model, many companies are implementing the practices of self-management and self-organization. Problems, obstacles, and barriers to success are simply a natural part of everyday business and it is crucial to ensure that everyone can think for themselves.   

Using common sense, unfortunately does not come naturally to everyone, but instilling practices such as the Why-way and its fundamental focus on cause-and-effect relationships, ensures a sustainable approach to problem-solving, enhances autonomy, and supports a culture of self-management.  


This article is written by:

Christiaan Grové

Christiaan Grové

SSI Global | Eco-System

Christiaan is an accomplished Management Consultant specialising in the integration of Leadership Development and Continuous Business Improvement. For the past 20 years, he has worked in various industry sectors, including manufacturing & processing, mining, farming, food industries, fast moving consumer goods (FMCG), petrochemicals and the service sector. He successfully facilitated the implementation of continuous improvement programmes such as Lean Management, World Class Manufacturing and Formal National Qualification programmes in over 50 unique companies.


Join the Semco Style Community as a Premium Member now!


As a Premium Member, it gives you access to our premium content, neatly organized in our custom-made Semco Style Eco-System. Here you find 100+ detailed practices, tools, cases, and assessments. All content is designed to equip you with relevant information for tangible results. You can join weekly community events and reach out to our facilitators, partners, and experts, ready to support you on your journey to make change happen. One organization at a time!

Join the community