Five Ws and H

Engineering Areas
Analysis & problem definition
Group or individual
Group, Individual
Amount of people
Up to 15, 15-25, 25+
Type of activity
Collaborative team setting, On-line Classroom activity, Self-work by students
Between half an hour and one hour, Between one and two hours
Type of class


What is this technique about

This is a simple but powerful tool for cutting quickly through the outward symptoms of a problem to reveal its underlying causes (WHY), so that you can deal with it once and for all. How to dela with the issue is represented by the H (HOW).

The Five Ws and H are questions the answers to which are considered basic in information gathering or problem solving. These questions are sometimes called journalistic questions because all news stories are supposed to answer them.

The reasoning behind this technique is that any analysis of facts and information is only complete when we can answer 6 questions:

    • Who (was involved)?
    • What (happened)?
    • Where (did it take place)?
    • When (did it take place)?
    • Why (did that happen)?
    • How (did it happen)?

Where does it come from 

This standard series of questions has been used since antiquity. The Greek rhetorician Hermagoras of Temnos (1st century BC) defined seven “circumstances” as sources of information about an issue: who, what, when, where, why, in what way, by what means.

A famous poem of the English journalist and writer J. R. Kipling, accompanying the tale of “The Elephant’s Child” opens with:

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

For which purposes it is used (why in your engineering teaching)

This creativity technique is a standard tool used by journalists as a method of inquiry and is sometimes called “reporter questions”. The aim of this inquiry approach is to understand the given problem more precisely in order to be able to define it better and to find a solution.

The method can be used in different circumstances, e.g.:

    • as a checklist to keep in mind in a discussion or when you want to to generate further questions;
    • to generate data-gathering questions, during the early stages of problem solving;
    • to generate idea-provoking questions, to help build on existing ideas while brainstorming, brainwriting or another similar technique.

This technique can be used when teaching storytelling or story writing, as well as in practicing brainwriting, brainstorming, and in different situations that require to identify, analyse and resolve a problem.

How to use it

In the process, the participants are supposed to successively pose the six questions in regard to the problem to be solved:

    • Who?
    • What?
    • When?
    • Where?
    • Why?
    • How?

Each question should have a factual answer; none of the questions can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”. Walking through the Five Ws and 1 H allows us to see if we left anything out.

The Five Ws and H are often used in the problem exploration phase to improve the understanding of the challenge before searching for solutions. Here are some questions that could be asked [3]:

    1. What is the problem (or need for creativity)?
    2. Why is this a problem or an opportunity?
    3. When (or by when) do we need to have solved it or found a creative response?
    4. Who is responsible for this, who can be involved in this or have an idea that can help us to find a solution?
    5. How will we evaluate which is the best solution if we come up with alternatives? How will we implement it? How will we find the resources?
    6. Where will these solutions be applicable?

The technique can be used in many different ways, e.g. [3]:

    • By an individual: asking him or herself the questions and writing down the answers
    • By a team, in the way of brainwriting: the team sits around a table and circulates six sheets of paper titled What? Why? When? Who? How? Where? Person “A” starts with sheet “What”, person “B” with sheet “Why”, person “C” with sheet “When” and so on.  The first person writes down some ideas about “What”, then passes the sheet to the next person who adds another couple of suggestions and passes to the next person, etc.  Once the six sheets of paper have gone around all members of the group you will probably have 12 suggestions per sheet and 6X12 for the whole exercise.
    • By a team, in a way of brainstorming: the facilitator stands in front of a flipchart, asking the questions and trying to write quickly to keep up with the ideas as they are shouted out.

How to implement this techniques online

The application of this technique in an online setting does not differ at all when you are using it on an individual level, one goes about the questions and writes the answers down in a document or using a template or a tool. 

For instance MIRO offers a template you can use:

In this case the 5 Whys Template in Miro is built to show you the necessary steps to apply this methodology. First, write the problem statement you want to analyze in the first rectangle of the template, on the top left. This will be your focus throughout the whole process.

Start asking “why”. Subsequently, dig deeper by asking “because” questions until you get to the root of the issue. Record these question/answer statements in each block to keep track and refer back to later as you test your hypothesis. Follow this path until you reach a satisfying conclusion.

The template also allows for its use in groups, for instance you can invite several people and share the 5 Whys Template you are using and @mentioning them in comments.

Use sticky notes to call out issues that are particularly important or require follow-up. You may also want to color-code the sticky notes depending on the urgency or severity of the problem or whose role it will be to take the next step.

For groups, using the technique on-line means that you will combine a template or tool with an online video-conferencing tool, as while the participants are interacting on-line, and for example putting sticky notes in Miro Board they need to be able to ask for clarifications, or there can be short discussions on the comments posted. 

Overall, the technique is motivating as it helps the students to feel more creative and innovative. However you need to bear in mind that:

    • If there are too many “Why” questions (especially if you are asking the problem-owner Why? Why? Why?), the person being questioned can become irritated and defensive.
    • “How?” “When” and “Where” questions bring forth descriptive answers that allow everybody listening to visualise observable evidence that can be worked upon to come up with a solution.
    • The technique can be modified as necessary, e g. to ask not just factual but also higher order questions (who should?.. why would?..)

Examples and/or testimonials

There are many examples and cases on the use of “Five Ws and H”, but we have not yet found one where this technique is issued in a virtual environment.

If you have used this technique in an online or virtual setting, or know about a case please let us know.

Tools needed

You will need a platform to share screens and communicate with the participants, such as for instance Zoom, MS Teams or similar, as well as tools for brainstorming

    • Miro
    • Mural
    • Conceptboard



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Adobe Communications Team. (2018, July 05). Questions of Every Project. Adobe Experience Cloud Blog. Online available at

Jeremy Porter. (2010). Five Ws and One H: The Secret to Complete News Stories. Journalism World. Online available at

John Gaynard. (2009, January 07). Six Honest Serving Men : Five Ws and H. Online at

MindTools Content Team. 5 Whys: Getting to the Root of a Problem Quickly. Emerald Works Ltd. Online at

Cuofano, G. (2021, July 29). What Is The 5 Whys Method And Why It Matters To Unlock Creativity In Business. FourWeekMBA. Online at

State of Michigan (Utah Education Policy Center from the Residents First HQQ Initiativ). (2020, February 02). 5-Whys Guide & Template. Homepage of State of Michigan ( Online at





PermissionToPlay. (2020, July 25). 5 Whys creative thinking technique. [Video]. YouTube.

Interaction Design Foundation. 5 Whys. [Video]. Interaction Design Foundation.

CauseMapping. (2018, April 03). 5-Why Root Cause Analysis – Welding Robot Example. [Video]. YouTube.

Empower Multimedia. (2021, March 06). The 5 Whys – Root Cause Analysis (With Examples). [Video]. YouTube.


Serrat, O., Asian Development Bank. (2009). The Five Whys Technique. Cornell University ILR School. DigitalCommons@ILR. Online at


Ambruso, P. (2014). Getting to Root Cause through the 5-Why Methodology. Pamoga LLC. ASIN: B00NT820HG.