The 5 Whys: What Toyota Can Teach Your Nonprofit

The intersection of nonprofits and big business was almost unthinkable a few decades ago – unless of course, the big business in question was making a substantial donation to the latest campaign. Fast forward to today and nonprofits are tapping into classic business strategies to find success in the escalating battle to deliver more services to more clients with an ever-dwindling pool of resources.


5 whys what toyota can teach your nonprofit


What problems?

Unfortunately, we humans adjust to the bad as well as the good. By becoming captives to routine, we fail to face certain problems because they simply become invisible. Any process improving effectiveness, making an organization more productive, is great but the first step is to recognize where changes must be made.

The practice of problem-solving is mostly avoided because we’re locked into our routines, sidestepping unseen hitches. This is the point where the for-profit sector has plenty to offer nonprofits. Business, with its commercial nature of its operations, goes back to basics, uncovering the bottom-line impact of problems and making necessary improvements.

Enter the Toyota Production System (TPS)

The TPS is a management philosophy that first appeared in California in the 80s, when Japanese auto maker Toyota opened its original American factory. In the official description, TPS is described as a framework for conserving resources by eliminating waste. By using the system, people learn to identify expenditures of time, effort and materials that do not add value or returns.

Various tools were developed to transfer these concepts into practice, among them the Five Whys. One of the fundamental principles in the TPS is that even the most complex problems have simple causes if you can recognize them. With the system of the 5 Whys, these causes can be easily identified.

Using the “5 Whys”

To use this method, whenever a problem crops up, explore the glitch directly by asking “why” five times until the original cause is found.

Get to the bottom of a problem through persistent enquiry: For example, let’s look at one of the big nonprofit problems today:

“Our organization is losing repeat donors.”

Then your 5 Whys might look like this:

  1. Why don’t we get repeat donations? A: We’re doing donor retention on a wing and a prayer.
  2. Why are we doing retention on a wing and a prayer? A: We don’t have an infrastructure in place for donor retention.
  3. Why don’t we have an infrastructure in place for donor retention? A: Because we don’t have a donor retention plan.
  4. Why don’t we have a donor retention plan? A: Because we haven’t allocated resources to donor retention.
  5. Why haven’t we allocated resources to donor retention? A: Because we haven’t set goals, measurable objectives or specific strategies for donor retention.


>> The problem solved: We are losing repeat donors. Our issue of donor retention has never been formalized.
>> The solution: We need to set out working strategies and implement them to retain and steward our donors.

Toyota engineering staff have taken these techniques to various nonprofits in an effort to increase the charities’ community reach and help them become more effective.

Because research has revealed that this method of searching for root causes will work in many miscellaneous settings, the TPS has been utilized by business to eliminate waste, create company vision, and help production run smoothly. Another field seeing increasing use of the TPS principles is the health care industry seeking to improving patient care.

Breaking down the 5 Whys to analyze how such a seemly simple system works, we find that it’s all about thinking a bit more deeply about the decisions we make on a day to day basis.

Solutions to the problems of today

Moving ahead into this not-so-new-year, nonprofits face the usual variety of challenges and depressingly similar problems. Using the 5 Whys gives your nonprofit another tool against mediocre outcomes.

Economic and political unpredictability aside, the old complications of unstable funding and greater demands on nonprofits will need creative problem solving. (Nonprofit Times’ Workplace Predictions for 2017.)

Then there’s the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) with changes to overtime rules that may force nonprofit managers to reevaluate and implement new changes to their staffing structure.

Borrowing from the business world

Meeting the increasing needs of our clients and fulfilling our missions are the driving force, the bottom-line of our nonprofit world. Don’t be afraid to borrow liberally from the business world. The selective use of tried and true business methods help nonprofits structure their operations are accepted practices.

Big business contributes to the nonprofit sector every time we create a case statement, implement basic business practices in our organizations or set out to find corporate sponsors.

How has big business helped your organization make a greater impact for meaningful change?

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  1. Posted by Pete W. 28th July, 2017 at 10:24 pm

    Interesting strategy for nonprofits thanks



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