Audience Dialogue

Five hows and five whys

One of the many useful concepts originating from the TQM (total quality management) movement is the "five hows and five whys." This was developed in Japan for manufacturing industries, but it applies to any human activity. This type of thinking is also known as "laddering" and "means-end chains".

As an example, let's take "having a website." Think of this activity as being halfway up a ladder, with 5 steps above it and 5 below. You go up the ladder by asking "why" and down it by asking "how." For example, move one step up the ladder by asking "why are we having a website?" The answer might be "to give more information to our customers." Move up another step by asking "why give more information to customers?" The answer might be "so they won't have to telephone us with their questions." Move up another step by asking "why don 't we want them to telephone us?" The answer might be "to save us money and time." And so on. (Another version of the "five whys" involves thinking of five different reasons for any situation; a useful exercise, but not a sequence, and not what we mean in this context.)

You can probably guess that the top rung of the ladder will always be something like "to have a better life." (That is, the people who benefit from the organization will have a better life.) It may not be exactly 5 steps from the middle, but it's seldom anywhere near 10.

To go back down the ladder, you ask "how" questions. For example "how can we save money and time?" One answer would be "not having to answer so many phone calls." (Of course, there would be other answers too, so when you step down the ladder, you find it has a lot of branches. Perhaps it's really a tree, not a ladder!)

Going down the ladder from the starting point ("having a website"), ask "how can we have a website?" The first answer could be "acquire the relevant skills and equipment." The next How question is "how can we do that?"

And so it continues - perhaps five steps down, but no more than 10. The answers to the last How questions are very specific. In this case, the answer to the last question might be something like "tomorrow, Joe will write a brief for developing a website."

The analogy of the ladder makes the concept clear, but don't let it limit your thinking. In fact, there are multiple ways to go up and go down the ladder. Perhaps a better analogy is scaffolding on a building site, with each floor of the new building linked by a number of ladders. Going up the ladders, for every "why" question there might be several reasons - and (coming down) for every "how" question there are several possible actions.

If you are not clear about the purpose and practicality of your website, why not do this exercise? Begin in the middle,and keep stepping up and down till you run out of reasons and activities. By the time you finish, you should be able to see some clear links between daily activities and eventual purposes.

For more about laddering and means-end chains, see this page from Brigham Young University in the USA

Back to the page on website effectiveness (if that's where you came from).