Monday Motivation #07 – Sustainability and The 5 Whys

If you’ve got children in your life you’ll know the true meaning of the ‘5 Whys’… it’s a management consulting term [Lean methodology] used to identify the root cause of something – ‘root cause analysis’. Children keep asking ‘why’ until they get to the true meaning or cause of something… they are intensely curious and naturally test everything around them in the search for the logical cause. Telling them ‘that’s just how they made it’ is asking for trouble.

image sourced from Meloni Coaching Solutions [no affiliation – just a good image!]

I’ve been wondering if we do this consistently enough in the sustainable development arena? When we use the 5 Whys [and yes it could be less or more than 5] we will often uncover a root aspiration that is not well reflected in the brief.

  1. Why do you want solar panels on this building? Because they are a green technology
  2. Why do you want a green technology? Because I want to present a green image for the project
  3. Why do you need a green image? Because I think it will help me attract and retain good staff
  4. Why is staff attraction and retention an issue? Because our staff turnover has been higher than we’d like
  5. Why has it been higher? Have you investigated? Yes – and lots of staff have complained that we’re not green enough.

… and there you have it – obviously a made-up [and simplistic] scenario – but we’ve identified a root cause to which there are numerous solutions rather than just one. Once we know the root cause we can re-plot the brief in a way that leads to a much better outcome for the client and the users. They will still get what they originally aspired to, but likely a whole lot more as well.

The link below takes you to a classic example of the 5 Whys – and explains how the width of a modern rocket booster, one of the most sophisticated pieces of machinery on earth, was derived from the width of a horse’s arse. And no I didn’t verify its truthfulness – it’s a good story that doesn’t need to be spoiled…


Of course we can’t take this approach with all clients – some have simply made up their mind and we’re best to just get on with it. But in my experience clients are always looking for maximum value, and no-one’s ever lost a commission for asking too many questions.

“In all affairs, it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” – Bertrand Russell


2 responses to “Monday Motivation #07 – Sustainability and The 5 Whys

  1. Good one Digby! The 5 Whys should be applied to any assumption – David Engwicht (remember the book Towards an Ecocity?) uses this in his approach, as part of ‘Dual Spiral Thinking’.

    And without even clicking the link, I know that story you are referring to! Roman roads! 🙂

    • thanks Sharon. I ask them all the time – mostly I get the ‘here he goes again’ fidgeting in seats and averted eyes, but every now and again I uncover a gem – so it’s all worth it.

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