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5 Whys: The Ultimate Root Cause Analysis Tool

Use the 5 Whys technique to find the root cause of a problem quickly.

Unpredicted problems occur in any team or process. However, problems are just symptoms of deeper issues. Fixing a problem quickly may be a convenient solution; however, it doesn’t protect your work process from recurring mistakes. This is why your team needs to focus on finding the root cause and tackling it properly. The good news is that there's a simple yet powerful tool that can help you get to the bottom of any problem: the Five Whys analysis process.

The 5 Whys method allows uncovering the root cause of a problem by simply asking "Why" five times. This interrogative technique is one of the most effective tools for root cause analysis in Lean management.

Origin of 5 Whys

The 5 Whys method is part of the Toyota Production System and an essential approach to problem-solving. Developed by Sakichi Toyoda, a Japanese inventor, and industrialist, the technique became an integral part of the Lean philosophy.

"The basis of Toyota’s scientific approach is to ask why five times whenever we find a problem … By repeating why five times, the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear." Taiichi Ohno

One of the key factors for the successful implementation of the technique is to make an informed decision. This means that the decision-making process should be based on an insightful understanding of what is actually happening on the work floor.

In other words, the root cause analysis process should include people with practical experience. Logically, they can give you the most valuable information regarding any problem that appears in their area of expertise.

What Is a 5 Why's Example?

When applying the 5 Whys technique, you want to get to the problem's essence and then fix it. Actually, the 5 Whys questions may show you that the source of the problem is quite unexpected.

Often, issues that are considered technical problems actually turn out to be human and process problems. This is why finding and eliminating the root cause is crucial if you want to avoid iteration of failures.

5 whys analysisFive Why’s analysis example

Here is an example of applying the 5 Whys.

Problem: We didn’t send the newsletter about the latest software updates on time.

Questions:

  1. Why didn’t we send the newsletter on time? Updates were not implemented until the deadline.
  2. Why were the updates not implemented on time? Because the developers were still working on the new features.
  3. Why were the developers still working on the new features? One of the new developers didn’t know the procedures.
  4. Why was the new developer unfamiliar with all procedures? He was not trained properly.
  5. Why was he not trained properly? Because CTO believes that new employees don’t need thorough training and they should learn while working.

You can notice that the root cause of the initial problem turned out to be something completely different from most expectations.

Furthermore, it is obvious that it is not a technological but a process problem. This is typical because we often focus on the product part of the problem as we neglect the human factor.

Therefore, the 5 Whys analysis aims to inspect a certain problem in depth until it shows you the real cause.

Keep in mind that "5" is just a number. Ask "Why" as many times as you need to complete the process and take appropriate actions.

What Is a Five Why’s Template?

A Five Whys template provides a structured format for conducting the analysis. The template typically includes a series of questions or prompts to guide you through the process of identifying the underlying causes of the problem at hand. A basic Five Whys template might look something like this:

  • What is the problem?
  • Why did the problem occur?
  • Why did the reason in question 2 happen?
  • Why did the reason in question 3 happen?
  • Why did the reason in question 4 happen?

Thanks to the iterative nature of the model and by answering these questions in sequence, you can trace the problem back to its root cause and develop effective solutions to address it. You may include additional questions or tailor the template to align with specific types of problems and requirements.

How Do You Perform 5 Whys Analysis?

The 5 Whys technique may help you achieve continuous improvement at any level of your organization. The 5 Why’s process typically includes the following steps.

1. Form a Cross-Functional Team

Try to assemble a team of people from different departments. Each representative has to be familiar with the process that is going to be investigated.

By forming a cross-functional team, you are going to receive unique points of view.

This will help you collect enough information to make an informed decision. Be aware that this is not an individual task, and it needs to be executed by the team.

2. Define the Problem

Discuss the problem with the team and make a clear problem statement. It will help you define the scope of the issue you are going to investigate.

This is important because investigating a wide-scope problem may be a time-consuming exercise with blurred boundaries. Try to be as focused as possible to find an effective solution in the end.

3. Start Asking "Why"

Empower one person to facilitate the whole process. This team leader will ask questions and try to keep the team focused. The answers should be based on facts and real data, rather than on emotional opinions.

The facilitator should ask "Why" as many times as needed until the team can identify the root cause of the initial problem.

Advice 1.  Don’t ask too many Whys. If you keep going, you may end up receiving tons of unreasonable suggestions and complaints, which is not the purpose. Focus on finding the root cause.

Advice 2.  Sometimes there could be more than one root cause. In these cases, the 5 Whys analysis will look more like a matrix with different branches. This may even help you detect and eliminate organizational issues that have permanent negative effects on overall performance.

5-whys-analysisVisualization of a 5 Why’s analysis including multiple root causes

4. Act on the Root Cause

After the team detects the root cause(s), it is time to take corrective actions. All members should be involved in a discussion to find and apply the best solution that will protect your process from recurring problems.

When the decision is made, one of the team members should be responsible for applying the right actions and observing the whole process.

5. Monitor the Effects

After a certain period of time, the team needs to meet again and check if their actions had a positive impact. If not, the 5 Why’s process should be repeated until you identify the correct cause of the problem.

6. Document the Process

In the end, the analysis process should be documented and shared across the organization. Sharing this information will give an insightful overview of the different kinds of problems a team may face and how those problems can be eliminated.

When To Use Five Why’s Analysis?

The 5 Why’s analysis is widely used for troubleshooting and problem-solving. For instance, if a system or a process isn’t working correctly, a Five Whys analysis can be used to identify what’s causing the underlying problem. The tool enables teams to eliminate the root cause of a problem and prevent а process from recurring failures. Furthermore, 5 Why’s encourage each team member to share ideas helping to drive continuous improvement.

Thanks to its simplicity and flexibility, you can use the tool in combination with other cause-and-effect analysis methods, such as Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA) or Root Cause Analysis. Five Why’s also finds a widespread application in Six Sigma process improvement methodology. It is used to reveal the underlying causes of process roadblocks, such as product defects, and guides quality improvement efforts.

5 Whys Frequently Asked Questions

What Are the 5 Why’s Questions?

The Five Why’s is a brainstorming method where the audience asks repeatedly the question "Why" until the root cause of a problem is identified and the solution is clear.

What Are the Techniques to Perform Five Why’s Analysis?

Two of the most popular visualization techniques to perform the 5 Why’s analysis include root cause analysis tools such as the Fishbone diagram (also called Ishikawa diagram) or process mapping.

How Can the Five Whys Analysis Tool Be Used in Practice?

The Five Whys process is deceptively simple, but it can be incredibly effective in a wide range of contexts, from manufacturing and engineering to healthcare, education, and personal life.

What Are Other Problem-Solving Techniques?

Other widespread root cause analysis tools include the Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA), process mapping, and Scatter diagram.

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