Humans are natural problem solvers. Every problem has a solution and we naturally set out to find it. We love a challenge and without them, we don’t grow and mature fully. One powerful problem-solving method is the 5 Whys technique. Although it may sound like something small, this powerful tool has the ability to tear down a problem to reveal its underlying causes so that you can deal with it once and for all.
You may be thinking about what the 5 Whys may be. Are they questions that arise in the mind of a child wondering how the world seems to function? Or are they something more complex? Let’s find out.
In this article, we see what these 5 Whys are and how they are a way of solving problems. Additionally, we will go through some examples and benefits of using this technique.
What Are the 5 Whys?
If we go back to see the origin of 5 Whys, we come to know it’s a technique that was created by Sakichi Toyoda, the Japanese industrialist, inventor, and founder of Toyota Industries, in the 1930s. It became so popular in the 1970s that the company still uses it to solve problems.
Problems occur all the time. Finding a quick solution to the problem may be a convenient solution. However, this doesn’t guarantee that it will prevent mistakes from occurring in the future. This is why your team needs to focus on finding the root cause and tackle it properly.
“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
The 5 Whys technique is one of the most effective tools for root cause analysis and is remarkably simple. Whenever a problem occurs, you deeply analyze its details to find its root cause by asking why 5 times. Very often the reason for a problem will lead you to another question and that, in turn, will help you find the issue related to the problem. Then when a countermeasure begins to show up, you follow the steps to prevent the problem from occurring again.
A countermeasure is aimed at preventing the mistake from happening again by taking action to stop it. That means that the 5 Whys technique focuses more on the countermeasures rather than a solution to the problem.
How Are the 5 Whys Used?
Here’s the process for conducting a successful 5 Whys analysis of your own:
Forming a Team
Gathering a team is the first step of using the 5 Whys technique. Collect those members who have the specific knowledge and have the experience to solve the problem. An effective team will consist of people with varying perspectives on the issue. Once the team has formed, appoint someone to be the facilitator of the team. This person guides the team and helps them stay focused on finding an effective countermeasure for the problem.
Define the Problem
The next step is to discuss what is the problem that has occurred. Using a problem statement your team should then define the problem. You should discuss with your team the problem and form a specific and clear statement of the problem. You may want to be as specific as possible because a vague statement may lead to unnecessary complexity.
Ask Why 5 Times
The third step of the 5 Whys Root Cause Analysis is asking why 5 times. Begin by asking the first why. Then the facilitator will lead the team in asking a sequence of questions. The answer to each why should be based on factual data and not just random opinions and suggestions of the members.
One thing to keep in mind is that you don’t need to be asking exactly 5 whys. In some scenarios, more than 5 Whys may lead to the right countermeasure. Similarly, some problems may be solved in under 5 questions. However, asking too many whys will lead you to receive loads of unreasonable suggestions and complaints, which is not the purpose. Instead, the purpose is to find the root cause.
The rule here is to ask the team why a problem is occurring or has occurred. For instance, why is the marketing team not hitting its target?
Your team members may come up with one obvious reason why, or several plausible ones. All the given answers should be recorded in phrases rather than long statements. Write the answers just below the problem statement. For instance, the answer can be “the team is overburdened because of low hiring” instead of simply “overburdened” which is a bit vague.
The series of questions follow the first why and a suitable reason for each is defined. This eventually leads to identifying the root cause and then deciding on a suitable countermeasure.
5 Whys Example
Look at the following example of the 5 Whys method.
Problem: There’s a puddle of water on the floor in the storage. Why? The main pipe is leaking. Why? The water pressure increased. Why? The control valve is defective. Why? Control valves haven’t been tested or maintained.
All the whys lead us to the root cause, that is, the control valve doesn’t get maintained on a regular basis.
Often The 5 Whys method shows you that the source of the problem is quite different from what you may have imagined. Sometimes issues that are considered technological can be due to human error and vice versa. You can take a look at this 5 Whys template for a better understanding.
Similarly, look at this simple example:
Problem: The student doesn’t have their textbook. Why? They couldn’t buy it. Why? Their father didn’t pay them. Why? The father didn’t have money. Why? He didn’t receive his salary for the month.
Asking the Whys led us to the root cause of the problem that the father hadn’t received his salary due to which his son was unable to buy his textbook.
Address the Root Cause
Now that your team has identified at least one root cause, you need to discuss how you can prevent the problem from happening again and find a suitable countermeasure.
It’s Time to Take Action
The next step of the 5 whys is to take corrective action once the root cause has been found. Finding all the reasons why a problem is occurring doesn’t mean anything if your team doesn’t take action to prevent it.
As the last step of the 5 Whys analysis, you should monitor how effectively your countermeasure has worked in minimizing the problem or preventing it from occurring in the future. If for some reason the measure isn’t as effective as you need it to be, it means you may not have found the proper root cause and you should repeat the 5 Whys technique from the beginning.
Finally, save all your findings and share them with everyone on the team and in the organization. So that everyone is able to learn from this particular case study.
This can be a great way of learning the solution to this problem and to prevent it from happening again.
Benefits of the 5 Whys Method
One of the biggest benefits of the Five Whys method is that it is a powerful tool when it comes to the assessment of problems without using any statistical method. It offers a clear solution to problems or issues whose cause wasn’t obvious in the beginning. Other than that the technique has the following benefits.
Helps Identify the Root Cause
The sole purpose of carrying out this method is to find the reason a problem is occurring. When you probe deeper into why a problem is occurring with 5 whys, it helps identify the root cause of the problem. Plus, it encourages each team member to share ideas to improve continuously, rather than blaming others.
Helps Understand More
Finding the solution or countermeasure of one issue helps us understand more about other similar issues. It also helps understand how one process can cause a chain of problems. In addition, it is one way of preventing issues like that in the future.
Helps Find the Human Problem
According to Eric Ries, the 5 whys method is a great way into finding human errors. In his video, Ries says, “Behind every seemingly technical problem, is a human problem waiting to be found.”
Ries’ gives a great example:
“The server crashed.”
“Because a new API was pushed to that server.”
“Because we just launched a new feature that used that API in the wrong way.”
“Because we had an engineer that was new and didn’t know how to use that API properly.”
“Because that engineer was never trained.”
“Because their manager didn’t believe in training.”
Turns out, the error that was originally thought to be technological was actually human.
Prevents Problems From Occurring Again
By addressing the root problem, the failure will not be repeated. This is because the 5 whys technique helps give a countermeasure for the problem rather than a solution. The whole process is equivalent to treating the disease instead of just the symptoms over and over again.
It Is a Simple Process
Another benefit of the 5 whys method is that it is a simple process. Other processes require complex statistical analysis to deal with problems. This method on the other hand is logical. In other words, the 5 Whys is highly effective without complicated evaluation techniques.
How to Use the 5 Whys Method In the Workplace?
Whenever you encounter a problem in the workplace, the 5 whys method is a great way to tackle it. The 5 whys technique is best suited to simple or moderately difficult problems. For complex problems, you may turn to a more elaborate solution. In a similar way, form a team and work on finding the root cause by asking 5 Whys. Lastly, you should share the findings of the root cause with everyone on your team. This gives everyone the idea of what to do and what not to do when working on that specific task.
Things to Keep in Mind
When you implement the 5 Whys method in the workplace keep in mind the following important things:
- Always differentiate the symptoms from causes.
- For the technique to work effectively, try following the formula. (Why+ and therefore+the problem happened)
- You can ask as many whys as you see fit and the number can be lower than 5.
- All the answers should be supported by facts and data. Mere opinions and suggestions from the team will lead to inaccurate results.
- Lastly, the whole procedure should be aimed at assessing the problems in a process and should not be used as a means to blame others.
Ready to Get Started with 5 Whys?
A question asked in the right way often points to its own answer- Edward Hodnett.
The quote tells us that when used in the right way, the 5 Whys is a great tool to learn countermeasures and solutions to a problem. Additionally, the method gives your team the confidence that this method can help them solve most problems and also prevent them from occurring in the future.