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The “5 Whys” – A Process to Increase Market Share in Boomer & Senior Markets

On April 16, Robert Rose published and article for the Content Marketing Institute describing a concept in problem-solving called the “5 Whys.” Developed by Sakichi Toyoda, it was originally used within Toyota Motors during the evolution of its (now) famous Toyota Production System. It has since been adopted by a number of project management and other processes e.g., Six Sigma.

Using the 5 “Whys”

The classic process is simple. It’s about stating a problem, and then asking the “why” question 5 times to get to the “root cause” of the problem. Rose uses the following example (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 5th Why solution)
  • Purchase a different vehicle that is maintainable. (possible 6th Why solution)

Applicability for Marketers

Marketers can use the “5 Whys” process to understand better why they have been reticent to specifically reach out and promote their products to boomers and older customers an estimated $2 Trillion market. In a recent Journal of Active Aging our contemporaries Dick Ambrosius and Helen Foster wrote “To plan for success in serving the age 50-plus consumer majority, businesses, non­profit organizations and governments must learn to view the market through the lens of reality, not the distorted view seen through the youth lens of yesterday. For example:

  • No one buys anything or uses a ser­vice solely because of their age, but to satisfy wants, address needs and enjoy experiences. New techniques must be learned and applied that connect with later-life values rather than perpetu­ating ageist factoids and stereotypes.
  • Few advertising agencies, consultants and businesses have an understanding of how to connect with later-life val­ues. Too many seem to have accepted current factoids rooted in aging ste­reotypes, myths and misconceptions. Without constructive alternatives, companies will continue to waste bil­lions by focusing on features and ben­efits and using the wrong words and messages.

By adopting new strategies and tools grounded in reality, businesses and organizations will insure success in a market dominated by older consumers.”

A very simple exercise follows:

Problem: We’re not getting larger share of older markets.

  1. Why? – Because they’re set in their ways and won’t change brands so why try (first why)
  2. Why? – Because our brand isn’t attractive to older customers (second why)
  3. Why? – Because they don’t see themselves using our products (third why)
  4. Why? – Because we don’t use older customers in our ads (fourth why)
  5. Why? – Because we think using older customers in our marketing will turn off younger customers (fifth why, a root cause)
  • Develop a trial Emarketing campaign focused on older populations using targeted populations images

So, the root cause in this case is that marketers think they’ll turn off younger potential customers and haven’t executed a trial ad campaign to test that conclusion and attract older customers. They can’t accurately predict whether older customers will purchase their products, or the greater problem this will eventually lead to an even slower growth rate as the population ages at a rapid pace. So, fix the root cause and you can likely avoid the eventual problem.

The questioning for this example could be taken further to a sixth, seventh, or higher level: the “five” in 5 Whys is not gospel. The key is to encourage the marketer to avoid assumptions and logic traps and instead trace the chain of causality in direct increments from the effect through any layers of abstraction to a root cause that still has some connection to the original problem. Note that in this example the fifth why suggests a broken process or an alterable behavior, which is typical of reaching the root-cause level.

It is interesting to note that the last answer points to a process. This is one of the most important aspects in the “5 Why” approach – the real root cause should point toward a process that is not working well or does not exist. A key phrase to keep in mind in any “5 Why” exercise is “people do not fail, processes do”.

There is, however, some criticism of using the “5 Whys” to help get to the true causes of problems. The criticism is “it’s too basic a tool to analyze root causes to the depth that is needed to ensure that they are fixed.”  Reasons for this criticism include (again adapted from Wikipedia):

  • Tendency to stop at symptoms rather than going on to lower-level root causes.
  • Inability to go beyond current knowledge – cannot find causes that they do not already know.
  • Lack of support to help ask the right “why” questions.
  • Results are not repeatable – different people using 5 Whys come up with different causes for the same problem.
  • Tendency to isolate a single root cause, whereas each question could elicit many different root causes.

These can be significant problems when the method is applied through deduction only. On-the-spot verification of the answer to the current “why” question before proceeding to the next is recommended to avoid these issues. To the victor belong the spoils.



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