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Problem Solving: The 5 Why Approach

Instead of pointing fingers, understand and learn from mistakes.

When Adam Hergenrother discovered that most of the bathtubs in a 56-unit Alzheimer’s care facility his company built were installed improperly, he didn’t immediately look for someone to blame. Instead, he used a problem-solving method that helped him uncover the root cause for the mishap and learn something valuable about his company in the process.

“We sat down and dug deep into all of it — why were the bathrooms installed improperly?” said Hergenrother, co-owner of BlackRock Construction, reflecting on the incident, which occurred in 2017. “We didn’t want to place blame, we wanted to take accountability and fix the system.”

Hergenrother was applying the 5 Why approach, which encourages users to ask “why” at least five times to find root causes for a problem and create solutions. The goal is to shy away from pointing fingers, applying quick fixes or hiding the issue. Instead, construction companies can use the tool to change detrimental habits and attitudes.

For example, Hergenrother first asked why the bathtubs were installed incorrectly. He determined it was the result of the vendor that supplied the tubs as well as BlackRock’s lack of oversight. Next, he asked why BlackRock worked with that particular vendor. He learned BlackRock didn’t complete diligent background research on the company before drafting a contract. Then he asked why again and realized BlackRock needed a stronger process for vetting vendors.

Additionally, Hergenrother asked why BlackRock didn’t catch the error as the tubs were installed. He learned his company relied too heavily on the vendor and wasn’t “inspecting what we were expecting,” he said. When he asked why for fifth time, he determined BlackRock needed to improve its inspection policy.

At the end of the exercise, Hergenrother and his team established better protocols for reviewing vendors and inspecting installations. The checklist they created of actions to take before every project has been adopted company-wide and has prevented similar issues from happening again.   

“There are always going to be challenges,” Hergenrother said. “The key thing is if you have a model to solve problems.”

The 5 Why technique was developed in the 1930s by Sakichi Toyoda, an industrialist whose son Kiichiro created Toyota Motor Corporation. The automotive manufacturer popularized the method and continues to use it today.

Lean Project Consulting, a firm that works with architecture, engineering and construction companies, published a paper on 5 Why in which they noted that adopting the technique can lead to a more desirable workplace culture. The authors wrote that employees will feel more at ease if they are encouraged to point out problems as they occur and help find improvements.

Tom Richert, principal of Lean Project Consulting, said five isn’t a magic number in this process. In fact, it may take people seven or 10 rounds of asking “why” to get to the heart of the issue. He encouraged users to make sure the questions aren’t just solving surface-level problems.

“We want to drive down to the root cause so we can understand how to not only solve that specific problem but a whole range of other problems that may be happening,” said Richert.

As for Hergenrother, he said the bathtub snafu was a major problem but that BlackRock had a high return on the failure. Mistakes like that one don’t mean the company is a failure, he noted; he believes they are an opportunity to learn something new and gain experience.

When you’re building a $20 million facility, there are always going to be problems, and it’s how you address them that matters the most,” Hergenrother said. “We learned the larger lesson that when you’re doing large scale projects, you need to slow down before you can speed up.”


Emily Canal is a staff writer at Inc. Magazine and has reported pieces for The New York Times, Boston Globe and Forbes. 


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