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Using the 5 Why's to Solve Your Problems as a Professional Learning English

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

The 5 Whys method developed by Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of the car company Toyota, uses the five whys method to identify the root causes of problems so they can find practical solutions. The way it works is you ask the question why five times to think more deeply about an issue.


In my opinion, we don't use this method enough when it comes to trying to identify problems and solutions for learners of languages. Very often learners are taught general English when they begin (fair enough), however, what about when you're an advanced learner, and you have more specific problems. The five why's method helps because you will start to explore the problems you're having in a much deeper way than just addressing the initial symptoms.

Case Study

Let's use a case study to see how I would adopt the five whys method to design a highly effective and specific program for a student.

For example, one common frustration I hear over and over.

Students: "I'm shy and embarrassed to speak up in project meetings with colleagues, and other professions and I feel frustrated that I missed the opportunity to speak even though I knew I should have.

I could respond to this by saying, don't be afraid to speak up; people won't mind if you make mistakes, they know English is your second language. However, I wouldn't be doing my job correctly if I said that. That solution would be a band-aid solution. It doesn't solve the problem in the long term. You and I both know there is a much deeper root to this problem. You being embarrassed and shy isn't because you don't have the capability or you're not good at your job. There is something inside really stopping you and holding you back.

We can use the five why method to identify the problems and find countermeasures. Countermeasures are more effective than solutions because they are the things you can do to ensure that the problem stops happening. We can discover countermeasures at each level. You as a designer would also benefit from this process of using the five why's so I'd love to know if you already know about it or use it in the design process.

The five why's process

1. Teacher/Coach: Why do you feel embarrassed and shy and frustrated?

Possible response: I'm afraid I'll say the wrong thing. I'm worried I won't know what or how to say it.

Countermeasure: discuss types of scenarios where you feel uncomfortable to identify them.

2. Teacher/Coach: Why does saying the wrong thing make you feel afraid?

Possible response: I'm afraid my colleagues won't respect me. I'm so scared they will think I don't know what I am doing.

Countermeasure: write down some examples of where this has happened

3. Teacher/Coach: Why is this important to you? Why is it essential that your colleagues think that you know what you're doing.

Possible response: I do have the skills and expertise. I can say it in my native language, but I don't know how to do it in English. I haven't had, and opportunities to be able to do it and I don't have the vocabulary.

Countermeasure: Design situations where you can practice these scenarios and give you relevant reading and listening material to help build your vocabulary around this.

I could stop here. However, I want to go deeper.

4. Teacher/Coach: Why is it essential that you have these opportunities and that you speak up in meetings like this?

Possible Answer: I want people to see me as an expert and give me more responsibilities in projects.

Countermeasure: Together, we could identify the types of projects you want to be responsible for, and I could ensure that your learning is centred around this. However, I also think it's crucial at this point to talk about long term goals and help you to change your mindset to show you that you are capable of reaching these goals.

5. Teacher/Coach: Why is more responsibility more relevant to you?

Possible response: I want to be able to progress in my career.

Countermeasure: We design a program together that allows you to take steps to reach that goal.

Why is the five why's method so effective?

The reason this is such an essential process for me is you find the root of your problems, and we can find effective countermeasures. You can start implementing these solutions straight away the next few weeks at work.

To me, having a clear objective is a more effective was of reaching your goals. It's better than spending days on end watching things on Netflix in the hope that you'll improve. When the countermeasures are specific and targeted, this is when you make faster progress. Your confidence will grow and continue to grow from this point.

The overall strategy/solution:

From this process, I can see that a highly effective strategy would be to practice and learn examples of the vocabulary you need in this specific situation. I also think it would be beneficial to give you practice asking quick-fire questions because I can see that you need to practice thinking on their feet.

It would help if you also had the time and space to practice this in a role play and for someone to give you structured feedback. If you're embarrassed or shy in a meeting, it's not because you're bad at your job, you miss vocabulary and practice.

If you have these opportunities to practice when the time comes to do it again in a real-life, you can start to draw upon the vocabulary you're learning. Imagine how much your confidence will grow each time you do it more and more in real situations.

Then you can start to see how all the things you want will begin to fall in place. I can you can see why and how working 1:1 with someone is an effective way for you to achieve your goals faster.

If you want to discuss your situation, contact me today so we can get to the roots of your problems.

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