The 5 liberating whys

Written by , in category Agile & Scrum

16 May 2018


Object of Play

Some teams are struggling with re-enforcing behaviors and can’t seem to find why they can’t find the cause. If teams seem unable to reach the goal for their iteration, it’s good to go hunting for root causes.  The 5 why’s technique was formally developed in the 1930s by Sakichi Toyoda, one of the fathers of the Japanese industrial revolution. Here is a new take in combination with Liberating Structures that addresses some of the 5 why’s criticisms.

Purposes :

It’s important to note that the purpose of the 5 whys isn’t to place blame, but rather to uncover the root cause of why something unexpected occurred.

  • Find deeper causes for problems
  • Find answers from people who have hands-on experience of the process
  • Problems are tackled more sustainably when they’re addressed at the source

Number of people

4 – 12 people, typically a scrum team

Duration : between 30’ to 1 hour

Opening 10’, Exploration 30’ , closing 10’


  • Offline
    • Postits and a 5 why’s poster for every 4 people




 Hang or draw a 5 why poster per 4 people in the exercise

Include an artful participation poster and the prime directive :

“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

This adaptation of 5 why’s uses a 1-2-4-All Liberating structure to address some of the problems with the traditional 5 why’s exercise where a facilitator addresses a team and they try to find the answers.

  • Results are not repeatable – different people using 5 Whys come up with different causes for the same problem.
  • There is a tendency to isolate a single root cause, whereas each question could elicit many different root causes.

Using 1-2-4-All  we include everyone in the group and make sure everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute. The initial individual answers are weighted against the other participants answers and the more interesting ones remain.

Part 1: Opening Stage 10’

Write down the problem team needs to evaluate in an area visible to all the group members, and if possible, draw something that represents it.

Explain the team we are not going to look for blame: We are looking for root causes in the process, not in the people! Explain that giving a name of a person as cause is not what we are after in the exercise.

Distribute sticky notes to each player and ask them to number five of them 1 through 5.

Part 2: Exploration Stage 1 : 10-15’

  1. Each individually on their own post-its : Ask the participants  to review the problem statement and ask themselves WHY it’s a problem. Ask them to write their first response on sticky note 1.
  2. Check every-one finished writing, then ask  WHY the answer on sticky note 1 is a problem and write the response on sticky note 2
  3. Again wait until everyone has finished writing and move on asking why the problem on sticky nr 2 is a problem and have the answer written on 3.
  4. Continue until the 5 stickies have a problem.

Part 3 : Exploration Stage 2 : 10 ‘

Ask participants to form groups of two. Have each participant explain in turn his problems on the 5 notes to the other.

Part 4: Exploration Stage 4 : 15 ‘

Ask participants to form groups of four. Explain the groups they will be creating new sets of problems based on what they will learn form each other. Hand them 5 new notes to write on.

Have each participant explain in turn the problems he heard from the other to the 3 others in the group. This time the participants don’t explain the problems they wrote themselves, but the ones they were explained to in part 3.

The group needs to come up with 5 problems they will share to the other groups.

Ask them to use the 5 why’s canvas to hang their problems.

Each group explains to the other groups the problems they found

Part 5 : Closing Stage 1 : 20’ : finding fixes.

 Have the same groups rotate to the problems of other group.

Ask them to look for experiments to fix the problems listed and add the fixes to the right side of the canvas.

Here I found it to be interesting to have the facilitator challenge the fixes to see if they really address the problems.


Part 6 : Closing Stage : 10’ : explaining fixes

 Each group explains the possible experiments to try.




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