5 Whys

The 5 Whys is a simple but powerful brainstorming tool for using root-cause analysis to get to causal issues. Get to the heart of problem and build an action plan…
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What are the 5 Whys?

The 5 Whys is a brainstorming technique to help drill down into problems by asking a series of “why” questions. It’s a form of root-cause analysis which can be useful in personal or work scenarios.

Solving complex problems can often feel like untangling a knot. The deeper you go, the more convoluted it becomes. But what if there was a simple method that could help you unravel these knots effectively? Welcome to the world of the 5 Whys, a powerful tool in the problem-solving arsenal of many professionals. This article will guide you on how to use the 5 Whys method and provide empowering examples across various sectors.

How to use the 5 Whys method?

The 5 Whys method is a root cause analysis tool that helps identify the core of a problem. It involves asking “Why?” five times (or as many times as needed) to peel back the layers of an issue until you reach its heart. The complexity of the problem doesn’t matter; the 5 Whys can be just as effective with big, complex problems as it is with smaller ones.

The process is simple. First, you state the problem. Then you ask “why” it is happening. Your answer forms the basis of the next question. You repeat this process until you’ve asked “why” five times. By the end, you should have identified the root cause of the problem, allowing you to develop a strategy to address it effectively.

To illustrate the power of the 5 Whys, let’s consider some empowering examples across different sectors.

The 5 Whys exercise is designed to encourage deeper thought and investigation into a problem, using 5 questions to work towards a root cause or ultimate reason. This encourages causal, rather than symptomatic, problem solving.

Originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda and the Toyota Motor Corporation’s production facility – it forms a part of Six Sigma methodology, designed to remove waste from production processes.

How are the 5 Whys used?

The 5 Whys encourage a deeper level of analysis and discovery than we sometimes allow time for, and asks us to delve a little deeper into the underlying reasons something happened in the first place.

It can be helpful when problem solving because it forces us to look beyond the obvious and explore solutions which may be far more effective in the long-term.

It also allows us to back-trace our steps or decisions to find the reasons behind them. In this way, we’re able to focus on causal issues, rather than the symptoms. This is an important distinction because it forms the basis of deeper, investigative analysis.

Symptomatic issues

These are by-products of a deeper cause. For example, a headache may be symptomatic of dehydration. If we just focused on the symptom we may take a painkiller, but this would have no effect on the underlying (and more serious) cause. Another example might be having arguments with your partner whenever a certain topic comes up. If we just focused on the argument (symptom) we may miss the deeper, underlying reasons that are fuelling them (cause).

Causal issues

These are core reason or factors that influenced why things happened in the first place. They are not always obvious and generally require some investigation and enquiry to get to the bottom of. They, are however, far more likely to create long-lasting change when addressed, but require more thinking and exploration that more obvious symptoms.

The 5 Whys is an investigative, brainstorming exercise that helps us to find these reasons so we can do something about them.

Uses for the 5 Whys:

  • Explore why the same thing keeps happening, despite you trying to fix the immediate symptoms.
  • Investigate an underlying feeling that doesn’t seem to be going away.
  • A practical tool to look at work or personal issues and how to start fixing the cause.
  • A way to move beyond “sticking plaster” solutions and start to address underlying causes.

Build greater insight into causal issues: Invest the time in dealing with causal issues rather than sticking plasters on symptoms.

See how small decisions can lead to big impacts: The 5 Whys is useful in spotting the small decisions or choices that ultimately lead to much bigger issues to manage later.

How unrelated elements are often interconnected: You’ll often find that, previously unconnected decisions, can be highly related. The 5 Whys helps you spot these elements.

How to use the 5 Whys – Exercises

The 5 Whys exercises (and templates below) can be used in a whole range of situations. It’s worth doing some preparations before you start so you can make the exercise as useful as possible.

1. Agree the problem you want to answer with 5 Whys

Before you dive in, it’s worth defining the problem you want to answer. An easy way to do this is by creating a problem statement. A problem statement is just a clearly articulated summary of the issue you’re facing.

For example:

  • Project: The new app for processing payments was delayed by 4 months.
  • Team: We’ve missed following up 15 customer queries this week.
  • Personal: I’ve felt undervalued in my life for the past few months.
  • Relationship: We’ve been having regular, passive-aggressive arguments.

You’re just trying to define the problem you want to explore, so you know where to start.

Where to start with your 5 Whys template:

  • Keep the initial question broad but factual – it should be a single sentence.
  • Don’t aim to include any solutions or reasons at this stage.
  • If it’s emotionally based, don’t worry if you can’t be too specific.
  • Just try to articulate as best as you can.

2. Start asking “why”

5 Whys Exercise - Template

Once we’ve defined our problem statement, we’re going to start asking “why”. You may find the initial few answers are easy, and then be forced to think a little harder as you progress.

How well you reflect and consider each answer will have a big impact on how effective the exercise is. You’re searching for a deeper truth here, not necessarily the first thing that pops into your head. Also, bear in mind that there’s not usually one, single right answer – so if you’re doing this in a group expect there to be some differences.

Finally, if it involves other people, teams or partners – try to avoid value or judgemental statements. For example: “team x is lazy”, or “my partner doesn’t listen”. Instead, if you feel these are relevant, base them in an “I feel” statement. “I feel x team are lazy”, “I feel my partner doesn’t listen”.

5 Whys questioning:

  • Try to stay objective and avoid value statements.
  • Focus on being inquisitive, empathetic and objective.
  • Don’t worry if the answers become harder the further you go into the exercise.
  • It’s ok to go back and change an answer if, on reflection, you don’t feel it’s right.

5 Whys Example – At Work

Your new app for processing customer payments is delayed. You need to find out why.

In this example a few why questions leads us to discover that the organisation doesn’t tend to share information freely and departments tend to lock-down towards each other.

5 Whys – Problem statement

Our new customer payments app is delayed by 5 months, impacting our global route map.

  1. Why? The specification needed to be changed to fit with new, internal systems architecture, which we didn’t know about.
  2. Why? This piece of work was carried out by a different department, who weren’t aware of the impact their changes would have on us.
  3. Why? We don’t have global “show and tell” across the organisation or much alignment across departments.
  4. Why? It wasn’t considered a priority to share information across the organisation by senior management.
  5. Why? The organisation doesn’t invest in sharing effectively and tends to operate in silos.

Root cause analysis

Teams aren’t sharing business critical information and aligning on larger projects. Need to introduce mechanisms and initiatives to encourage cross-project sharing.

5 Whys Example – With a Team

Your team are meant to be replying to 10 emails an hour, but only manage 5. Let’s explore why…

In this example, we can see that a decision made many years ago (when the structure was different) never updated.

Equally we can see the team never highlighted the issue of suggested a different approach.

5 Whys – Problem statement

Our target is to reply to 10 email queries an hour, but we are missing our target.

  1. Why? Each enquiry takes much longer to complete because we don’t have the right information to hand.
  2. Why? The information is stored in multiple places and maintained by other departments.
  3. Why? It was considered a better way of keeping the information up-to-date and accurate a few years ago.
  4. Why? Because those teams were the ones who were dealing with customers at the time, and the process has never been updated.
  5. Why? We’ve not raised it as a concern or suggested an alternative process.

Root cause analysis

Team need to speak up and take ownership of managing, updating and controlling the information required to respond.

5 Whys Example – With a partner

You’re having consistent, petty arguments with your partner about small things. Let’s explore why.

Important: If you’re going to do this exercise with another person make sure they’re happy to do it, know what to expect and it’s done with love and care.

In this example, we use the 5 Whys slightly differently but the outcome still highlights a need to address unspoken issues to prevent any repressed feelings spilling out.

5 Whys – Problem statement

We’re having daily arguments about small things.

  1. Why? There’s an underlying sense that I’m being taken for granted, and I’m feeling frustrated.
  2. Why? You forget about some important dates that really meant something to me.
  3. Why? I feel like you’re too busy to really connect with me, and I feel forgotten about.
  4. Why? Your work is taking over too much of our personal time, and we’re not addressing the elephant in the room.
  5. Why? It’s a painful or difficult discussion to have, so we’re ignoring it rather than having the courage and kindness to discuss it.

Root cause analysis

There are underlying conversations which are being avoided and need to be addressed.

3. Root cause analysis and action

Once we’ve worked through the 5 whys we should have some idea of what the root cause might be (or at least one of them).

This is our opportunity to start solving the causal issue and building an action plan for how to fix it. There are a few things to worth thinking about when defining this root cause.

What’s in your control

If you find that the root cause is something outside your control, it’s worth revisiting to see if there’s a cause you can control or influence – essentially something within your Circles of Influence. It will make taking action much easier.

Avoid blame

The point of this exercise is not to point the finger at someone – it’s to start fixing things. If you find your analysis comes to blaming a person or team, it’s worth revisiting and asking if there’s another way to look at it which could create a positive outcome (you can do something about).

Tips for root cause analysis – 5 whys:

  • Make it focused on something you can control, influence or do something about.
  • Try to avoid blame – this should be a positive, action-focus exercise.
  • Accept that it might take a few goes to become effective at 5 Whys – we’re much more comfortable jumping to the first solution we can than staying “in the problem”.

That’s it!

That’s a summary of how to use the 5 Whys technique at home, work or with teams.

Free Template – 5 Whys

To help you get started, I’ve put together a 5 Whys template you can start using today.

5 Whys Template – download

Use this template as a starting point for running through your own Circles of Influence.

5 Whys Template Download

5 Examples of the 5 Whys Method in Problem Solving

Empowering Example 1: A 5 Whys analysis in Business

In the business world, the 5 Whys method can be a game-changer. It helps identify systemic issues that might be hindering productivity or causing operational problems. Let’s take an example: a company is experiencing a decline in sales. The 5 Whys could be used as follows:

  1. Why are sales declining? Because customers are not returning.
  2. Why aren’t customers returning? Because they are not satisfied with the product.
  3. Why aren’t they satisfied? Because the product does not meet their expectations.
  4. Why doesn’t it meet expectations? Because the product’s features do not match what’s advertised.
  5. Why don’t the features match the advertisement? Because there’s a disconnect between the marketing and product development teams.

By identifying the root cause, the company can now take action to align the marketing and product development teams, thus addressing the issue effectively.

Empowering Example 2: A 5 Whys example in Manufacturing

In manufacturing, the 5 Whys can help identify production issues and improve efficiency. Consider a scenario where a manufacturing plant is consistently failing to meet production targets. The 5 Whys could be applied as follows:

  1. Why are we not meeting production targets? Because the assembly line keeps breaking down.
  2. Why does the assembly line keep breaking down? Because one of the machines is faulty.
  3. Why is the machine faulty? Because it’s old and hasn’t been serviced regularly.
  4. Why hasn’t it been serviced regularly? Because there’s no maintenance schedule.
  5. Why is there no maintenance schedule? Because the importance of regular maintenance was not recognised.

By asking these questions, the root cause was identified, enabling the management to prioritise regular maintenance and prevent future breakdowns.

Empowering Example 3: Using the 5 Whys in IT

The 5 Whys method is equally effective in IT, where it can help resolve technical glitches and improve systems. Suppose a company’s website keeps crashing. The 5 Whys could be applied like this:

  1. Why does the website keep crashing? Because the server is overloaded.
  2. Why is the server overloaded? Because too many users are accessing it simultaneously.
  3. Why are too many users accessing it simultaneously? Because a feature on the website has gone viral.
  4. Why has the feature gone viral? Because it was featured on a popular blog.
  5. Why was it featured on a popular blog? Because the marketing team did not anticipate the level of traffic it would attract.

The root cause highlights the need for better forecasting and planning, to ensure the IT infrastructure can support sudden increases in traffic.

Empowering Example 4: A 5 Whys example in Healthcare

Healthcare is another sector where the 5 Whys can bring about impactful change. For instance, if a hospital has a high rate of post-operative infections, the 5 Whys might look something like this:

  1. Why is there a high rate of post-operative infections? Because patients are being exposed to bacteria.
  2. Why are patients being exposed to bacteria? Because surgical instruments are not being sterilised properly.
  3. Why aren’t instruments being sterilised properly? Because the sterilising machine is not functioning correctly.
  4. Why isn’t the machine functioning correctly? Because it’s outdated and needs replacement.
  5. Why hasn’t it been replaced? Because funds have been allocated to other areas.

By identifying the root cause, the hospital can reallocate funds to replace the outdated sterilising machine and reduce the rate of post-operative infections.

Empowering Example 5: The 5 Whys in Education

Even in education, the 5 Whys can create positive changes. Suppose a school notices their students’ reading scores are continuously dropping. The 5 Whys might be applied as follows:

  1. Why are reading scores dropping? Because students are struggling with comprehension.
  2. Why are they struggling with comprehension? Because they are not engaging with the reading material.
  3. Why aren’t they engaging? Because the material is not relevant or relatable.
  4. Why isn’t it relevant or relatable? Because it’s outdated and doesn’t reflect their interests.
  5. Why is it outdated? Because the curriculum has not been updated in several years.

Recognising the root cause prompts the school to update its curriculum, making it more relevant and engaging for the students, and thereby improving reading scores.

The Limitations of the 5 Whys

While the 5 Whys is a potent tool, it’s not without its limitations. The method relies heavily on the knowledge and perspective of the person asking the questions. Therefore, it can sometimes lead to oversimplified answers or overlook deeper, systemic issues. It is also subjective and can be influenced by biases.

Despite these limitations, the 5 Whys remains a powerful tool in problem-solving. It provides a simple and straightforward way to delve into a problem and uncover its root cause.

The examples above illustrate how the 5 Whys method can be applied in various sectors to identify and address core problems. By asking “why” repeatedly, we can peel back the layers of an issue and get to its heart. This empowers us to develop effective solutions, unlocking the potential for improvement and growth.

Remember, the key to effective problem-solving is not just identifying the problem but understanding why it exists. So, the next time you face a challenging situation, don’t just ask “what’s the problem?” — ask “why” it is a problem. You might be surprised at what you uncover.


 James Freeman-Gray 

I'm James. A change consultant and organisational development specialist. I've been working in people-centred change for over 15 years. I partner with causes, champions, teams & leaders on projects for social, environmental, technological & human good. If you think I can support in making your change a success, drop me a message. 

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