Understanding the complexity of why questions… “Why questions are somewhat overdetermined.”

The Complexity of Why and the 5 Whys Technique to Navigate Root Cause Analysis

Understand the 'why' questions in business and learn how to harness the 5 Whys technique effectively to elevate your problem-solving strategy with a customer-centric lens.

Oct 2023

In a recent podcast Peter Thiel remarked, "I always think why questions are difficult… they're somewhat overdetermined." This statement, layered in its profundity, holds significant implications for professionals navigating the intricate terrains of business problem-solving.

Unpacking the "Why"

"Why" questions inherently probe into the realm of reasons, explanations, and causes. Unlike the more straightforward "what" or "how", "why" delves deeper, seeking to understand the underlying forces at play. The challenge? These questions can be overdetermined, meaning an outcome could be influenced by multiple, sometimes overlapping, causes.

Consider the downfall of a once-thriving business. Was it technological disruption, internal mismanagement, evolving consumer preferences, or all of the above? Pinning it down to a singular cause oversimplifies the narrative.

The 5 Whys: A Double-Edged Sword

Popularized by the Toyota Production System and subsequently adopted by Lean methodologies, the 5 Whys technique offers a seemingly simple solution. By iteratively asking "why", one can peel back the layers of a problem to reveal its root cause. However, the very simplicity of this tool is both its strength and its Achilles heel.

While effective for certain straightforward issues, the 5 Whys can falter in the face of complex, systemic problems. It risks oversimplifying multifaceted issues and missing the forest for the trees.

Customer-Centricity: Your Guiding Light

In this intricate landscape, adopting a customer-centric mindset can offer clarity. By focusing on the customer's experience, businesses find a North Star to guide their problem-solving endeavors. Regular feedback, a holistic understanding of the customer journey, and a commitment to continuous improvement can illuminate the path, providing clearer answers to those vexing "why" questions.

Navigating the "Why" Successfully

For professionals aiming to harness the potential of the 5 Whys, consider the following:

  • Embrace Complexity:
    Recognize that problems often have multifaceted roots.
  • Diversify Tools:
    Complement the 5 Whys with other methodologies to ensure a holistic analysis.
  • Cultivate Curiosity:
    Drive teams to challenge assumptions and dig deeper.
  • Act and Monitor:
    Implement solutions based on findings and regularly monitor outcomes for effectiveness.
  • Train and Collaborate:
    Regular training and multidisciplinary collaboration can yield richer insights.


In conclusion, "why" questions are inherently complex because they demand a multifaceted understanding of causality, context, and purpose. They can be overdetermined because multiple factors often converge to shape a single outcome. This complexity is both what makes "why" questions challenging and what makes them so essential to our quest for knowledge and understanding.

"Why" questions, in their overdetermined nature, mirror the complexity of our world. Our business world is just as complex. While tools like the 5 Whys offer valuable starting points to get things done, it's essential to approach them with an awareness of their limitations. By doing so, you can navigate the maze of causality with nuance, precision, and success.

Why is the 5 Whys technique so popular if it has limitations?

The 5 Whys technique is simple, easy to understand, and doesn't require specialized tools or advanced training. This makes it accessible and applicable across various industries and settings. While it has its limitations, especially for complex issues, it can be highly effective for straightforward problems or as a preliminary diagnostic tool.

How can businesses identify when the 5 Whys might be insufficient for their problem-solving needs?

When problems are systemic, multifaceted, or recur despite implementing solutions from a 5 Whys analysis, it might indicate that the technique is insufficient. In such cases, you should consider employing more comprehensive tools or methodologies and seek input from diverse stakeholders to ensure a holistic analysis.

Can the 5 Whys technique be adapted or modified to better handle complex issues?

Yes, the 5 Whys can be integrated with other problem-solving tools, like fishbone diagrams (Ishikawa) or Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA). This combination allows for a more in-depth exploration of issues. Additionally, involving a diverse group of experts and stakeholders can provide a broader perspective, capturing the multifaceted nature of complex problems.

How can you ensure that your customer-centric approach genuinely informs your problem-solving strategies?

Authentic customer-centricity requires consistent efforts. Regular feedback collection, continuous training, and a commitment to improving the customer experience are essential to not letting customer-centricity become a buzzword like the posters on your wall. Additionally, leadership must champion the customer-centric vision, ensuring it permeates every level of the organization and informs decision-making processes.

Are there industries or sectors where the 5 Whys technique is more or less effective?

The 5 Whys can be applied across various industries, but its effectiveness might vary. In sectors where problems are often straightforward or mechanical, like certain manufacturing settings, the 5 Whys can be highly effective. However, in industries with complex systems, like healthcare or aviation, a more comprehensive approach might be needed to understand the nuances of issues fully.

How can organizations balance the need for in-depth problem-solving with the pressures of quick decision-making in dynamic business environments?

It's a delicate balance. While in-depth analysis is crucial for sustainable solutions, businesses also face pressures to act swiftly. The key is to have a robust initial diagnostic tool, like the 5 Whys, to provide immediate direction, followed by more comprehensive analysis when time and circumstances allow. This approach ensures immediate responsiveness while also prioritizing long-term effectiveness.

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