Using “Six Honest Serving Men” as a problem analysis tool

Rudyard Kipling was one of the best-loved poets of all time. His work was celebrated for its versatility and passion. He was the first English-language writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature and, to date, he remains its youngest recipient.

Despite being written over 100 years ago, Kipling’s short Six Honest Serving Men poem outlines a very powerful set of questions which can be applied as a problem analysis tool to many testing and non-testing scenarios.

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 (1902)

I’ll demonstrate below how this analysis tool can be applied whilst testing to get to the important information as quickly as possible.

The six questions

What?

What?” questions can be used to return nouns to seek things that are or will be, or verb responses to seek actions.

Why?

People sometimes make assertions without thinking of the real reason behind them, so “why?” questions can seek a deeper understanding and prompt logical thinking.

In testing, it’s important to not only understand expected behaviour, but also why it behaves in that way. The deeper understanding can help with finding bugs, debugging issues, prioritisation and communicating with developers and other stakeholders.

Why not?” questions can be good for challenging and stimulating people to think about their reasons further.

When?

When?” questions can help with specific times or timeframes.

How?

How?” questions can seek verbs in the process. They are good for questioning the detail of what will or will not happen.

Where?

Where?” questions can gather information about an event or action in a geographic location (e.g. London, Manchester), a simple space (e.g. above, below) or a relative space (e.g. next door).

Who?

Who?” questions bring people into the problem analysis. They can help to understand who is doing the work, who is responsible, who are the stakeholders and so on.

Solving problems

It’s clear that all six questions can be implemented to analyse a problem, but how can they be used most effectively to gather information?

Using all six questions

Each of the six questions probe into a specific detail, such as a person or location, but they give us a more full understanding when all used together — for example:

  1. What is the problem?”
  2. When did it start?”
  3. Where is affected?”
  4. Who is affected?
  5. How can we fix it?”
  6. Why did it happen?”

Chaining questions

It may be helpful to chain the same type of questions together to gather more in-depth information — for example:

  1. Why did the process stop?”
    “Because it crashed”
  2. Why did it crash?”
    “Because the machine ran out of memory”
  3. Why did the machine run out of memory?”
    “Because the process was using too much memory”
  4. Why was the process using too much memory?”
    “Because there was a memory leak”
    and so on

Positives and negatives

It is often important to also ask both the positive and negative version of each question to get maximum information — for example, “what are we testing?” should be followed by “what are we not testing?”.

1 comment

Using these as a technique is quite common and the 5 whys technique was originally used by Toyota as part of their evolution of car manufacuring I believe, but it’s good to get reminders of these things. I like mind techniques and am a big fan of the 6 Hats method by De Bono. I’m enjoying your blog and am looking forward to where you go with it.

I love Kipling’s work and even made my version of ‘If’ a little while back written as if he were a tester. I’d love to hear what you think. https://www.thebigtesttheory.com/blog/2017/11/26/if-ady-stokes-2017

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