Have you ever had to deal with someone you are managing who always seems to have an excuse—a reason why something didn’t happen or why he was late? One good way to respond to the excuses is with a technique called the Five Whys. I heard about it from Chris Dana, who was with Pella Corp. at the time, but various histories suggest that the technique was born at Toyota Corp. in Japan as part of the company's efforts to improve production.

Suppose you have someone who said he was late to work because his car wouldn't start. Here's an example of how to respond, taken from Wikipedia:

  • The vehicle will not start (the problem).
    1. Why? The battery is dead. (first why)
    2. Why? The alternator is not functioning. (second why)
    3. Why? The alternator belt has broken. (third why)
    4. Why? The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (fourth why)
    5. Why? The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (fifth why, a root cause)
    6. Why? Replacement parts are not available because of the extreme age of the vehicle. (sixth why, optional footnote)
  • Start maintaining the vehicle according to the recommended service schedule. (possible solution to why #5)
  • Adapt a similar car part to the car. (possible solution to Why #6)

Five whys seems to be the right number for getting to the bottom of things. The conversation is handled in an objective, results-oriented way, with the actual ritual of asking the Five Whys helping the excuse-maker understand how he—not the car—is responsible.
When we were running our company, it used to drive me crazy to hear excuses. At the time, I didn't know about the Five Whys. If I had, I would have used the technique often!