The Five Whys technique is an innovative problem-solving tool that asks the same question (Why?) over and over again to identify the root cause of that problem. This method explores the confusing and twisted relationship between cause and effect, seeking to identify the human error behind each problem. The Five Whys technique is hugely beneficial for helping to solve persistent issues and can help business teams identify the root cause of a problem quickly and efficiently. This article will be exploring everything you need to know about the Five Whys technique, including its origins, the steps to conducting an analysis, and tips to implement it successfully.

History of the 5 Whys Technique

The technique was originally developed in the 1930s by Sakichi Toyoda, founder of Toyota Industries and considered the "father of the Japanese industrial revolution". The concept skyrocketed in popularity when Taiichi Ohno introduced it to the public in the 1950s, and it continues to be widely adopted and developed by many business frameworks and ideologies.

  • The Six Sigma methodology (developed by the engineer, Bill Smith, at Motorola, and made central to Jack Welch’s business strategy at General Electric) incorporated the Five Whys in its techniques for process improvement, more specifically, the analyse phase of the DMAIC framework.
  • More recently, Eric Ries, the creator of the lean startup methodology, incorporated the Five Whys into his lessons and workshops focusing the practice on issues frequently encountered by tech startups; which are frequently, but not limited to, software development problems.

Why you should use the Five Whys Technique in your Business

Of all the problem-solving tools out there, the Five Whys technique is one of the most straightforward and easy to implement. The Five Whys truly helps those in your organisation change the way they look at problems and solutions, encouraging them to investigate all "small" issues, which are often just symptoms of much more significant issues. And, because there are frequently multiple solutions to the same problem, the Five Whys technique is much more effective at encouraging the entire business team to participate in the brainstorming process.

The Five Whys in Action

Taiichi Ohno headshot

The Original

The original example of the Five Whys, given by Taiichi Ohno of Toyota when he introduced the in-house concept to the public, goes as follows:

1. “Why did the robot stop?”
The circuit has overloaded, causing a fuse to blow.
2. “Why is the circuit overloaded?”
There was insufficient lubrication on the bearings, so they locked up.
3. “Why was there insufficient lubrication on the bearings?”
The oil pump on the robot is not circulating sufficient oil.
4. “Why is the pump not circulating sufficient oil?”
The pump intake is clogged with metal shavings.
5. “Why is the intake clogged with metal shavings?”
Because there is no filter on the pump.

In this scenario, a quick fix could have remedied the symptom at each level; change the fuse, lube the bearings etc. However, the point of the exercise is to avoid patching symptoms and look deeper into the issue. Of course, the issue at each level will need to be rectified, but by digging down to discover the lack of filter as the root cause, will prevent reoccurrence of the broader issue in the future.

Eric Ries headshot

Eric Ries Version

As mentioned earlier, Eric Ries adopted the Five Whys into his lessons in lean start-up methodology, which provides us with a more modern example of the technique in action.

1. "Why was the website down?"
The CPU utilization on all our front-end servers went to 100%
2. "Why did the CPU usage spike?"
A new bit of code contained an infinite loop!
3. "Why did that code get written?"
So-and-so made a mistake
4. "Why did his mistake get checked in?"
He didn't write a unit test for the feature
5. "Why didn't he write a unit test?"
⠀He's a new employee, and he was not properly trained in TDD (Test-Driven Development)

The above analysis of this particular problem may seem straightforward and would likely be reached without using the Five Whys technique. However, using the Five Whys technique formally breaks the problem down into different levels, and this is where Eric extends the original Five Whys technique by proposing to "commit to making a proportional investment in corrective action at every level of the analysis."

So, for the example above, the five corrective actions would be:

  1. Bring the site back up
  2. Remove the bad code
  3. Help so-and-so understand why his code doesn't work as written
  4. Train so-and-so in the principles of TDD
  5. Change the new engineer orientation to include TDD

Eric goes on to suggest that we should use this technique for all kinds of issues faced in the business and each problem discovered should be seen as an opportunity to investigate and understand how we can improve a process. This concept of small continuous adjustments "builds up a robust series of defences" which drastically reduces the chance if the issue reoccurring.

Steps to Conducting a Five Whys Analysis

While the precise steps in a Five Whys analysis might look different for each organisation and each problem, most follow some version of these eight steps:

1.  Gather the Team

Before the problem-solving process even begins, it is critical to gather the entire team. This increases the likelihood that everyone will be on the same page during the Five Whys process and reduces the risk of bias. You should invite anyone affected by the issue as individual employees, and different teams can often have different perceptions of the same problem.

2.  Choose a Leader

Call this person a "Leader", "Facilitator", or "Guide". This individual will be responsible for facilitating the process, guiding the meeting and documenting all findings. Choosing this person should be one of the first things you do once the entire group is gathered, if not done prior to the meeting.

3. Define the Problem

Identify and agree on the definition of the specific issue that you have met to discuss. Have the leader write a brief, but clear, summary of the issue, and place it in an area where the entire team can see it, saving enough space to add the whys in later.

4.  Ask the First "Why"

Start by having the "Leader" ask why the defined issue initially occurred. As a team, discuss and explore various avenues of thought, digging into the reasoning behind every answer. This sounds simple, but the answers are going to require serious thought. Getting the right question is the key.

5.  Record the Answers

Record all answers for the first 'why', even the most obvious ones. Discuss these answers and agree on the most likely systemic cause before moving to the next 'why'.

6.  Repeat for Each "Why"

Each 'why' after the first, always questions the answer to the previous 'why'. This scrutiny of each answer allows us to investigate whether we have reached the root cause or just another symptom of a deeper issue.

Truly probing deep into the reason behind each answer, without developing an emotional response, is the key to succeeding with this method. The main rule of thumb is to stop asking why when the question is no longer providing the team with useful answers.

7.  Agree on Corrective Actions

The group reviews each question/answer combination and agrees on the corrective action (if required), down to, and including, the root cause. The "Leader" assigns responsibility, for each corrective action, to a team or individual present at the discussion and documents this in the analysis.

8.  Record and Share the Analysis

Team dynamics quote about the US basketball dreamteamAn essential, but often, overlooked step is for the "Leader" to formally document and communicate the findings, and follow up actions, to the group involved in the discussion. Also, if necessary, the information should be shared with a wider group, specifically those who may be affected by any of the proposed changes. This level of transparency encourages ownership and accountability for the business processes and develops a broader appreciation of individual business functions across team boundaries.

Naturally, we like to use Harkster for this.

Want these steps in a handy checklist?
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Tips for Successfully Implementing the Five Whys

It sounds simple enough; ask "Why" a bunch of times until you come up with a direct answer. But, implementing the Five Whys technique can be a little more complicated than you may realise. Some of the top tips for seeing success with this method include:

1.  Never Search for the Root Cause Alone

The Five Whys depends on team collaboration. While it is perfectly acceptable to dig into the top two or three whys by yourself, digging into the root cause should be done as a team. Sometimes, answers can generate emotional responses, and to reduce the risk of bias, team efforts are recommended for the Five Whys technique.

2.  Don't Feel the Need to Stop at Five

Depending on your situation, it could take seven whys to get to the root cause. Another problem might take only three. Try not to look at five as a firm number.

3.  Learn to Distinguish Causes from Symptoms

Keep asking "Why" until there are no more productive, useful answers. It's vital to continue probing each answer extensively to uncover deeper underlying causes.

4.  Be as In-Depth with Your Answers as Possible

Getting the right question is the key. With each answer, you're ultimately looking for another question. Keep your answers as detailed as possible to help with the flow.

5.  Make Sure You Gather the Right Resources

Because your main goal is to prevent this problem, or other issues like it, from resurfacing, it's important to gather everything you need to make an informed decision (personnel, documentation, communication etc.). Include a few subject matter experts who are not affected by the problem to help with this.

Want these steps in a handy checklist?
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Summary

The Five Whys technique is a powerful tool for helping teams properly isolate problems and recognise the way they connect with everything around them. It is effective for getting groups to think, take action, and solve problems in a lasting way.

The technique is steeped in history and its adoption by major companies, and management methodologies is a testament to its effectiveness. Given its simplicity, the method can be implemented rapidly to broad groups without the need for courses, training or delays.

The focus on small adjustments at each level of symptom / cause helps to foster an atmosphere of continuous improvement, often referred to as Kaizen, and still a major principle of the Toyota Production System to this day.

Reframing: Problem Solving for Creative Minds
Reframing, or having the ability to look at a problem from multiple different perspectives, is a powerful technique to have in your toolbox.