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If you have spent any period of time around small children (generally those between the ages of three and eight years old), it is almost impossible to avoid the "why" game. The game starts with the child asking why something happened (or why the child isn't allowed to do something) – and is rapidly followed up by a barrage of further "why" questions until either the child's curiosity is satisfied or the exasperated adult gives up and throws out the infamous "Because I said so" answer so well known to most parents.

What is really happening during this game is that the child is employing one of the most effective and straightforward techniques available to gain meaningful insights into compounded situations. The asking of successive "why" questions enables the child to go beyond a simple sequential understanding of the situation, and develop a cause-and-effect-based understanding of how the situation got to its end point in the manner that it did.

To understand the effectiveness of this approach, consider the not-so uncommon policing situation related in Five Whys Analysis.

While the technique is referred to as "five whys," there is no reason to deliberately extend (or restrict) the process to five questions. When there is no further viable answer to why an event occurred, it is likely that the root cause has been reached – irrespective of whether this takes three or 23 questions.

The Five Whys technique does have some limitations on its use. It is most useful in relatively simple situations that have a single, unbranched chain of events. If there are multiple possible "whys" identified at any level of the questioning process, it may be more useful to adopt one of the other techniques outlined next, to ensure that all the possible event chains are adequately captured and evaluated. It can also be highly subjective, and is typically restricted to the information known by (or available to) the questioner at the time. Consequently, the use of small groups that have a diversity of perspectives on the issue at hand can be helpful to overcome any inherent bias that individual participants may bring.

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