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The 'Five Whys' of Business Agility: Unearthing Root Causes and Potential Counter-Measures


Understanding Business Agility is no simple task; it's like navigating a maze of challenges. Yet, overcoming these obstacles helps companies adapt and thrive in a constantly changing market. To gain deeper insights into this agility, we can turn to the 'Five Whys' technique, a key component of the Toyota Production System developed by Taiichi Ohno.

Business Agility is not a standalone concept. It's deeply connected to every part of an organisation, from strategy to daily operations. To make sense of these complex relationships, we'll use the 'Five Whys' as our guide, helping us dissect the intricacies of agility, one 'Why' at a time."

The Essence of the 'Five Whys' Technique

Originating from Lean manufacturing, the 'Five Whys' technique involves asking 'Why?' five times in succession to identify the root cause of a problem. Though often applied in operational or manufacturing settings, this tool has far-reaching applications that can extend into Business Agility.

The 'Five Whys' technique is powerful because it's simple and effective. The repetitive questioning prompts individuals to think beyond surface symptoms and discover the root causes. Upon identifying the root cause, the technique provides a foundation for devising counter-measures to prevent the issue's recurrence.

The Versatility of the Five Whys

Using this technique in a company isn't just a process change; it's a change in the company culture. When everyone in the company learns to ask 'Why' to get to the bottom of problems, it creates a culture of ongoing improvement. This ties in seamlessly with the Agile philosophy, which values iterative development and continual learning.

Agile philosophy is inherently versatile, adapting to different problems' contours. Similarly, the "Five Whys" is not rigid but offers a dynamic approach. Its versatility is evidenced by its applicability across various issues—strategic roadblocks or operational inefficiencies.

The Customer at the Heart of Business Agility

Why is focusing on the customer so paramount in the realm of Business Agility? Every agile transformation is designed to accelerate the speed at which an organisation can meet and exceed customer expectations. So, when we dissect challenges using the 'Five Whys,' the end game is to enhance customer experience, improve product value and create a more responsive enterprise that puts customers at the centre of its universe.

Creating new ideas based on customers' needs can make a big difference and show that your company cares about its customers. Thus, each 'Why' should be a step toward resolving customer issues or aligning more closely with customer demands. As future leaders in the industry, the time is ripe for us to prioritise customer-centric agility as a competitive differentiator.

People, Culture, and the Five Whys

How can an organisation's culture and people make or break agile transformation efforts? The 'Five Whys' isn’t just a tool for the operational team; it's also a vital tool for HR and talent management. As future leaders, understanding the constraints and motivations of your people can significantly impact your ability to implement agile solutions effectively.

Your team is the most important part of delivering fast and valuable results. That's why a work culture that welcomes everyone, appreciates various skills and aims for constant growth is vital for your business.

The Anatomy of a Business Agility Challenge

To demonstrate the technique's efficacy, let's begin with a real-world quandary many organisations face: the struggle to respond swiftly to market changes.

Understanding the 'anatomy' of this challenge involves dissecting its multiple facets. To understand this challenge, you must look at it from many angles. Is the issue purely technical? Is it a human resources issue? Or perhaps it's a blend of several elements. Here's where the 'Five Whys' technique becomes instrumental, enabling you to examine the problem comprehensively.

The First Why: The Crux of the Issue

Why does our organisation struggle to respond quickly to market changes?

Answer: The product development process is too lengthy.

Potential Counter-Measure: Adopt Agile methodologies to shorten development cycles and put in place a monitoring system to gauge the speed of product development.

Elaborating the Solution

Adopting Agile methodologies isn't simply about faster delivery; it also involves cultural shifts. These could include embracing failure as a learning opportunity, promoting cross-functional collaboration, and continually adapting to customer feedback.

The Agile transition often necessitates an internal evangelist who champions the Agile principles across the organisation. This figure not only spearheads the initial adoption but also ensures the sustenance of Agile practices, thus shortening development cycles over the long term.

The Second Why: The Underlying Constraints

Why is the development process too long?

Answer: There are too many bureaucratic layers that each decision has to pass through.

Potential Counter-Measure: Empower team-level decision-making to reduce bureaucracy and introduce KPIs to track the time taken for decision-making at various levels.

Elaborating the Solution

Overcoming bureaucratic inertia is a considerable challenge. It necessitates a change in organisational psychology where a network of semi-autonomous teams replaces the traditional command-and-control hierarchy. Tools like 'Management 3.0' can be adopted to facilitate this.

The task doesn't end at merely flattening the hierarchy. It involves retraining the workforce to adapt to this new model and possibly revamping the performance metrics to align with this more agile form of decision-making.

The Third Why: The Structural Bottleneck

Why are there too many bureaucratic layers?

Answer: The organisation has grown rapidly, distancing decision-making from the actual work.

Potential Counter-Measure: Reorganise into smaller, autonomous teams and implement a hybrid approach using the Disciplined Agile Toolkit. Establish periodic reviews to ensure the team's autonomy positively impacts agility.

Elaborating the Solution

Scaling approaches provide frameworks for how smaller teams coordinate within larger organisational constructs. These can be instrumental when transitioning from a start-up to a scale-up phase without losing the essence of agility.

Making big changes in a company is a tough job that people often resist. That's why it's so important to have a solid plan for managing those changes. This way, you're prepared for both the emotional reactions of your team and the real-world hiccups that come with shaking things up.

The Fourth Why: Strategic Gaps

Why has the organisation grown so rapidly without addressing decision-making?

Answer: There was no initial strategy for efficient scaling; growth was prioritised over operational efficiency.

Potential Counter-Measure: Conduct an organisational review and establish a strategic plan balancing growth with operational efficiency. Monitor adherence to this plan via quarterly audits.

Elaborating the Solution

An organisational review may entail a SWOT analysis or an Agile maturity assessment to uncover your organisation's capabilities. This is often best conducted by an external Agile consultancy for unbiased perspectives.

Also, regular check-ins after making changes help ensure business goals and day-to-day work are on the same page, fixing any initial problems.

The Fifth Why: The Organisational Blindspot

Why was there no strategy for efficient scaling?

Answer: Lack of awareness about the impact of scaling on operational efficiency and agility.

Potential Counter-Measure: Engage in leadership training focused on Business Agility, scaling strategies, and operational efficiency. Implement a continuous learning program to keep the leadership team updated.

Elaborating the Solution

Beyond workshops and training programmes, continuous education is critical for maintaining Business Agility. Encourage knowledge sharing, perhaps through a Centre of Excellence focused on Agile practices.

The idea is to make learning an ongoing practice. Leaders, not just teams, must stay updated with the latest trends in Business Agility, making continued education a strategic necessity rather than a tactical choice.

A Transformative Approach

By methodically asking these "Five Whys," we've unearthed several pioneering ideas and potential solutions. These could propel your organisation toward a more agile and responsive future.

The journey doesn't end at finding the solutions; it’s a continuous cycle of identification, implementation, and re-evaluation. The transformative approach is not a 'one-off' but needs to be embedded in the organisational DNA.

Sustaining Agile Transformation

The "Five Whys" methodology isn't merely a one-time activity but a practice that should be ingrained into your organisation's fabric. Regularly reassessing challenges and solutions ensures that your organisation remains agile and adaptable, not just in name but in action.

Periodic reassessments act as checkpoints, ensuring the organisation doesn't veer off its agile path. Moreover, they offer the opportunity to make adjustments based on the learnings acquired, making agility a living, breathing concept within the organisation.

The Ethical Dimensions of Business Agility

As we meticulously apply the "Five Whys" technique within our organisations, there lies a sixth 'Why' that often goes unasked: Why are we striving for agility in the first place? While the pragmatic answer often centres on competition and market responsiveness, the unspoken facet lies in the realm of social responsibility.

As people care more about ethics, it's important that our efforts to be agile also consider the impact on society and the environment. Asking 'Why?' in this broader context leads us to a holistic vision of Business Agility—one aligned with organisational imperatives and the greater good. It's not merely about improving the bottom line; it’s about contributing positively to society and fostering sustainability.

Agility Beyond the Balance Sheet

Using the "Five Whys" technique to examine our social and environmental responsibility can be eye-opening. It provides a framework for considering how agile we are and what kind of agility we are promoting. Are our practices contributing to a more sustainable, ethical future? Or are we simply driving short-term gains at the expense of long-term impact?

The main goal here is multi-faceted. It aims to ensure that our efforts to be agile drive business success and stand up to ethical scrutiny. In this balanced approach, we strive for agility that is both good for business and ethically responsible, thereby contributing to a sustainable future for the planet and better welfare for society.


The 'Five Whys' technique offers more than a causal analysis; it provides a structured framework for unearthing transformative solutions. In the intricate landscape of Business Agility, it's easy to lose sight of the foundational issues that need addressing. Using this tool, leaders can facilitate deeper understanding, inspire innovative solutions, and ultimately accelerate their journey toward becoming a truly agile organisation.

Keeping a business agile is an ongoing task, not a one-time event. Leaders need to consistently apply tools like the "Five Whys" to stay aligned with the ever-changing dynamics of the market, making agility not just a catchphrase but a genuine business asset.

About the Author

Giles Lindsay is a technology executive, business agility coach, and CEO of Agile Delta Consulting Limited. Giles has a track record in driving digital transformation and technological leadership. He has adeptly scaled high-performing delivery teams across various industries, from nimble startups to leading enterprises. His roles, from CTO or CIO to visionary change agent, have always centred on defining overarching technology strategies and aligning them with organisational objectives.

Giles is a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute (FCMI), the BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT (FBCS), and The Institution of Analysts & Programmers (FIAP). His leadership across the UK and global technology companies has consistently fostered innovation, growth, and adept stakeholder management. With a unique ability to demystify intricate technical concepts, he’s enabled better ways of working across organisations.

Giles’ commitment extends to the literary realm with his forthcoming book: “Clearly Agile: A Leadership Guide to Business Agility”. This comprehensive guide focuses on embracing Agile principles to effect transformative change in organisations. An ardent advocate for continuous improvement and innovation, Giles is unwaveringly dedicated to creating a business world that prioritises value, inclusivity, and societal advancement.

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