5 Whys – Getting to the Root of a Problem Quickly

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Stubborn or recurrent problems are often symptoms of deeper issues. “Quick fixes” may seem convenient, but they often solve only the surface issues and waste resources that could otherwise be used to tackle the real cause.

In this post we look at the 5 Whys technique (sometimes known as 5Y). This is a simple but powerful tool for cutting quickly through the outward symptoms of a problem to reveal its underlying causes, so that you can deal with it once and for all.

Origins of the 5 Whys Technique

Sakichi Toyoda, the Japanese industrialist, inventor, and founder of Toyota Industries, developed the 5 Whys technique in the 1930s. It became popular in the 1970s, and Toyota still uses it to solve problems today.

Toyota has a “go and see” philosophy. This means that its decision making is based on an in-depth understanding of what’s actually happening on the shop floor, rather than on what someone in a boardroom thinks might be happening.

The 5 Whys technique is true to this tradition, and it is most effective when the answers come from people who have hands-on experience of the process or problem in question.

The method is remarkably simple: when a problem occurs, you drill down to its root cause by asking “Why?” five times. Then, when a counter-measure becomes apparent, you follow it through to prevent the issue from recurring.

When to Use a 5 Whys Analysis

You can use 5 Whys for troubleshooting, quality improvement, and problem solving, but it is most effective when used to resolve simple or moderately difficult problems.

It may not be suitable if you need to tackle a complex or critical problem. This is because 5 Whys can lead you to pursue a single track, or a limited number of tracks, of inquiry when, in fact, there could be multiple causes.

This simple technique, however, can often direct you quickly to the root cause of a problem. So, whenever a system or process isn’t working properly, give it a try before you embark on a more in-depth approach – and certainly before you attempt to develop a solution.

How to Use the 5 Whys

The model follows a very simple seven-step process:

1. Assemble a Team

Gather together people who are familiar with the specifics of the problem, and with the process that you’re trying to fix.

2. Define the Problem

If you can, observe the problem in action. Discuss it with your team and write a brief, clear problem statement that you all agree on. For example, “Our client is refusing to pay for leaflets we printed for him.”

Then, write your statement on a whiteboard or sticky note, leaving enough space around it to add your answers to the repeated question, “Why?”

3. Ask the First “Why?”

Ask your team why the problem is occurring. (For example, “Why is our client refusing to pay for the leaflets?”)

Asking “Why?” sounds simple, but answering it requires serious thought. Search for answers that are grounded in fact: they must be accounts of things that have actually happened, not guesses at what might have happened.

This prevents 5 Whys from becoming just a process of deductive reasoning, which can generate a large number of possible causes and, sometimes, create more confusion as you chase down hypothetical problems.

Your team members may come up with one obvious reason why, or several plausible ones. Record their answers as succinct phrases, rather than as single words or lengthy statements, and write them below your problem statement.

4. Ask “Why?” Four More Times

For each of the answers that you generated in Step 3, ask four further “whys” in succession. Each time, frame the question in response to the answer you’ve just recorded.

5 Whys Example

5 Whys

5. Know When to Stop

You’ll know that you’ve revealed the root cause of the problem when asking “why” produces no more useful responses, and you can go no further. An appropriate counter-measure or process change should then become evident.

If you identified more than one reason in Step 3, repeat this process for each of the different branches of your analysis until you reach a root cause for each one.

6. Address the Root Cause(s)

Now that you’ve identified at least one root cause, you need to discuss and agree on the counter-measures that will prevent the problem from recurring.

7. Monitor Your Measures

Keep a close watch on how effectively your counter-measures eliminate or minimise the initial problem. You may need to amend them, or replace them entirely. If this happens, it’s a good idea to repeat the 5 Whys process to ensure that you’ve identified the correct root cause.

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