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Using the 5 Whys technique for better instructional design

L&D departments get training requests all the time. It’s a good thing because that the organization values learning. However, the result will be far from good when a training intervention is not really connected to a skill or information gap.

There needs to be constant communication between the training request initiators and the people in charge of fulfilling it. One way of significantly improving the instructional design process (and end-product) is to apply the 5 Whys technique before starting the creative journey.

What is the 5 Whys technique?

The 5 Whys method is part of the Toyota Production System. Developed by Sakichi Toyoda, the technique became an integral part of the Lean philosophy. When applying the 5 Whys method, the point is to get to the problem’s root cause. In most cases, the real source of the issue is unexpected.

While the technique was initially developed for technical problems, it applies to any situation that needs a resolution. And it works very well for impromptu training requests, as it shows what kind of learning intervention is the best solution (if training is what’s needed).

Read more: 10 Tips for conducting a training needs analysis when faced with managerial demand

A practical example of the 5 Whys technique

As the name suggests, it implies asking Why? five consecutive times. It’s important not to go further than that, as it will all become redundant.

Back when I was a trainer in a large telecom company, someone requested a training program on persuasion techniques for the Retention & Loyalty team. So, we wanted to see where it came from:

  1. Why do the R&L assistants need persuasion techniques training?
    • Because the retention rate has gone down 30% in the past four months.
  2. Why did the rate go down?
    • Because we changed the retention offer and the new one is more complicated to implement.
  3. Why do employees find it difficult to implement?
    • Because it requires several complex changes in the CRM system.
  4. Why does it have to be so hard to apply the new offer to the customer’s accounts?
    • Because no CRM engineer was involved in the new offer’s deployment.
  5. Why was there no CRM engineer involved in the deployment of the new offer?
    • Due to confidentiality issues since all CRM engineers are subcontractors.

As it turned out, R&L specialists didn’t lack persuasion skills; they just found the new offer difficult to implement. And since they also had to handle a certain number of calls per hour, they decided not to present it unless they were sure the customer could be retained.

How to apply the 5 Whys technique for training requests

While the technique itself is fairly easy, you need the right answers to those whys. Here are the steps you should take to make sure you get to the root of the problem:

  • Put together a focus group made of the people who have the problem and assign the role of facilitator to one of them.
  • Define the problem as clearly as possible – even try to observe it if that’s an option; in the situation described above, we shadowed R&L specialists to see how calls went and how much work there was after they ended.
  • Ask the facilitator to begin with the first why directed at the reason the problem appears.
  • Starting with the first answer, generate the follow-up whys to find the real culprit.
  • Find the solution or the next steps that could lead to a partial or complete resolution.

When the 5 Whys technique works best

While it has a broad potential usage, this way of getting to the bottom of an issue is not universal. As it was designed to operate in a process-based production and assembly line, the technique works best when applied to a process. This means that you won’t be able to find the absolute truth by employing it.

Furthermore, it’s important that the issue you are trying to solve has already happened. This technique is rather factual and will not work well if you are attempting to mitigate potential future problems or as a result of something that is happening now.

Read more: 4 Tips for leaders to successfully manage change

Closing thoughts

Since training initiatives need to be efficient, it’s important to ensure that any learning intervention is adequate and in line with organizational needs. Applying the 5 Whys technique to any request will lead to a better understanding of the issue and give you an idea about what should be included in the material. It’s also the best way to see if the solution pertains to L&D or it's different need altogether.

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