#NowIUnderstand Glossary:
the 5W1H method

May 3rd, 2018
5W1H glossary: definitions and applications

All businesses are faced with many and varied problems and issues each and every day. Some are clear and the solution to fix them is obvious; others are a great deal more complex and require much more insight into the root cause of the problem. For issues of this type, it is crucial to ask the right questions and collect the right information, and thus examine them from all angles. The 5W1H method might then be useful to you.

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.

Rudyard KIPLING in The Elephant's Child

What is the 5W1H method?

5W1H is the abbreviation summarising the following six questions: What? Who? Where? When? Why? How? This method consists of asking a systematic set of questions to collect all the data necessary to draw up a report of the existing situation with the aim of identifying the true nature of the problem and describing the context precisely.

Within a critical and constructive analysis process, it is essential to compile exhaustive quality data. Hence the use of open questions requiring supported answers, thereby helping to pinpoint, clarify and delineate the problem.

Better knowledge of all the dimensions of a problem will then make it possible to suggest appropriate measures to take the right corrective actions. Sometimes the method is referred to as the “five Ws” only, with “How” ignored as it does not fit the pattern, but nonetheless used.

Good to know: Another 5W1H variant, especially in business, includes an additional question in the form of “How much?” thus making the 5W2H method. We will mention “How much” later in our list of applications below, but we will keep the 5W1H abbreviation for the rest of the article.

What is the 5W1H method used for?

The 5W1H method has many applications, very different from each other. It is perfectly suited, by virtue of its simplicity and versatility, to a variety of structures, configurations and problems, and so it can be used at all levels of the business:

  • At the strategy level to design or improve a market penetration strategy, for instance;
  • At the management level to improve organisation and processes during brainstorming sessions;
  • At the quality level as a problem-resolution support tool;
  • At the innovation level to boost the emergence of solutions and ideas in the cause of progress;
  • At the project management level generally.

The advantages of the 5W1H method

The strength of the 5W1H method lies in four key attributes:

  • Simple: no need for training or people accredited in the method to successfully ask these questions.
  • Systematic: the key to success is to always ask all the questions, each and every time.
  • Versatile: it can be used equally well to design a new process as to implement a corrective measure.
  • Comprehensive: the method can be used to obtain a 360° view of the problem and detect the route to resolution.

Implementation and applications of the 5W1H method

The 5W1H method breaks down into three main stages:

  1. Describe the initial situation;
  2. Determine the key factors and prioritise them;
  3. Propose fitting and, importantly, effective, actions.

The 5W1H questions are used to establish the situation (phase 1). On the basis of the answers and overview obtained, it is possible to find the critical factors (phase 2) and then offer solutions (phase 3).

Keeping it simple, a list of sample questions and explanations follows.

What?

  • Explanation: Description of the task, the activity, the problem, the project purpose.
  • Targets: Purpose, actions, procedures, machines, etc.
  • Sample questions: What is the problem or risk? What is the situation? What are the product characteristics? How does the service work?

Who?

  • Explanation: Determine the stakeholders involved, the people responsible or affected.
  • Targets: Managers, customers, suppliers, victims, those directly involved, etc.
  • Sample questions: Who is in charge? Who found the problem? Who will be asked to do the work?

Where?

  • Explanation: Describe the place or location involved.
  • Targets: Premises, workshop, workstation, etc.
  • Sample questions: Where does the problem apply? Are the premises easy to access? On which machine is the problem located?

When?

  • Explanation: Determine the time when the situation took, takes or will take place.
  • Targets: Dates, duration, frequency, etc.
  • Sample questions: How long does it take? When is the installation date? How often does the problem arise?

How?

  • Explanation: Determine the way to proceed, the steps and method employed.
  • Targets: Procedures, organisational methods, the actions, means and techniques used, etc.
  • Sample questions: Under what conditions or circumstances? How is the department organised? What are the methods used? What resources are employed?

How much?

  • Explanation: Determine the resources and equipment needed.
  • Targets: Quantities, budget, etc.
  • Sample questions: What is the cost? What resources are needed? How many man-days?

Why?

  • Explanation: Describe the motivation, or the objective, or the justification or reason behind a method of working.
  • Targets: Goals, purposes, justification, etc.
  • Sample questions: What is the targeted objective? Why was this training or this equipment chosen?

The question “Why?” is essential for better understanding. Do not hold back from asking it after any answer to the other questions (the other 4Ws and How).

To sum up, the 5W1H method is an outstanding method to better understand and delineate a situation, provided it is controlled properly and used wisely. It is a method that provides effective solutions to problems encountered and helps to create a positive continuous improvement dynamic in the business.

We invite you to read on, about how to successfully run the projects and action plans defined as the outcome of your next 5W1H analysis of an issue: