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Uncover Deep-Rooted Business Problems With Five Whys

This post is part of a series called Get to the Root Cause of Management Problems.
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Why are client complaints on the rise? Why did our last project go over budget?  Questions like these plague every business. It may be tempting to answer the questions with off-the-cuff responses, such as “they’re never happy with anything,” or “Bill can’t manage a budget to save his life.” The underlying problem, however, may require a little more careful thought.

That’s where the “Five Whys” method comes in. Five Whys is a problem-solving technique developed by the Toyota Corporation, and it is part of the collection of tools known as Six Sigma. A form of “drill down” analysis, its purpose is to discover the underlying reasons for a glitch or problem in a business setting.

At its most basic, Five Whys starts with a problematic outcome such as “we missed our deadline for the third time.” Using this method, the business team—led by a facilitator—asks the question “why did that happen” over and over again to get to the root cause of the problem. Sometimes, there are five “whys;” sometimes the answer requires fewer or more questions. At the end of the process, in many cases, the team is able to drill down to identify the root problem related to systems or resources. 

Five Why Analysis Diagram.

Five Whys can be a useful tool on its own, or it can be implemented as a tool for improving the brainstorming process during an extended process of root cause analysis. It’s important to note, however, that Five Whys is not a problem solving process; rather it’s a problem identification process. That means that once Five Whys has been successfully implemented, you’ll need to move on to developing a solution.

When to Use Five Whys

Five Whys is not perfect for every situation, but in some cases it’s an ideal troubleshooting tool. When should you pull out Five Whys to address a problem? Here’s a checklist to help you determine if Five Why’s is the right choice. If you answer “yes” to most of these questions, it’s worth your while to give Five Why’s a shot. 

  1. Are you trying to find the underlying cause of a simple problem (“why are we always out of toner for our copy machine,” for example) OR seeking a brainstorming technique as part of a more in-depth root cause analysis process? If you are trying to solve a complex problem, Five Whys may not be the best or only tool for your needs.
  2. Are you and your team able to identify and agree upon a problem statement? If you disagree on what the problem is, it will be impossible to drill down to an agreed-upon root cause.
  3. Do you have a facilitator who can help the process along? Five Whys is deceptively simple, and as a result it can be misused. It’s important to have a facilitator who not only understands the problem and the situation, but who also understands how to use the tool.
  4. Do you have a plan for following up on the Five Whys drill down process? As mentioned earlier, Five Whys is a great way to uncover a problem, but it’s not a tool for crafting a solution.

Remember: Five Whys is not a problem-solving tool in itself—so even if you do use Five Whys, you will also need to use other means to craft and implement a solution to the problem you’ve uncovered.

When to Avoid Five Whys

 Five Whys is very simple to use—or misuse. That means it is not the ideal tool for every situation. For example, in a situation where there is a lot of hostility or anxiety over blame, Five Whys can quickly become “Five Who’s” as in “whose fault is it that there is a problem?”

For a problem of, an important client is unhappy with our teams work, here is a Five Why's breakdown:

  • Why? Because they feel our account rep (Sam) is not responding to their specific needs.
  • Why? Because Sam isn’t getting all his messages.
  • Why? Because Jane, the office administrator, is always on break.
  • Why? Because Jane doesn’t take her work seriously.
  • Why? Because Jane doesn’t have the work ethic she needs to succeed at her job.

This type of an outcome to Five Whys is not only unproductive, it’s counterproductive. It is unlikely that the entire cause of a client’s dissatisfaction can be traced to an employee’s personal work ethic—and the conclusion reached allows for no meaningful action plan. Even the world’s greatest human resources department can’t change an employee’s work ethic!

Five Whys is also a poor choice when addressing a complex or multi-level problem, because it is not robust enough to stand on its own. Thus, if the problem is likely to require in-depth analysis (for example, “what are the production issues that are standing in the way of our ability to compete for price and reliability?”) Five Why’s might be used as a supporting technique, but not as a primary process for problem solving. Instead turn to a tool like a Fishbone Chart, which can be used to map out larger problems.

Five Why's is a powerful tool for drilling down to the heart of more direct problems and is effective when a few simple guidelines are followed.

 How to Use Five Whys

As you’ve just seen, it’s easy to misuse Five Whys. It’s equally simple, however, to use the technique correctly. These steps will help you to formulate the problem, brainstorm efficiently, and avoid the blame game:

  1. If possible, involve a facilitator with experience in the Five Whys method to guide the problem solving process. An inexperienced facilitator or an unguided group process can quickly fall apart or lead to unproductive outcomes.
  2. Be sure that everyone on the team agrees on the problem. If one team member sees the problem as a missed deadline, and another sees the problem as an individual’s bad work habits, it will be tough to come to a useful conclusion.
  3. When a team is involved with the problem solving process, it is helpful to divide the group into several problem solving “mini teams.” Allow each team to go through the Five Whys process, and then compare results. It is likely that each team will come to a slightly different conclusion, leading to additional brainstorming and more creative outcomes.
  4. Analyze your findings and agree on an action plan. Five Whys is not, however, a planning process—so it may be that the first step in your action plan is to sit down and create a step by step action plan!

Five Whys in Action

One interesting example of the Five Whys in action, provided by Six Sigma, shows how Five Whys can lead to interesting results which require further analysis before an action plan can be developed or implemented. In this case, employees at a marina were frustrated by the ponderous task of invoicing individual boaters for services—and they used Five Whys to determine why the invoicing system was necessary.

After asking the question “Why” four times, they had drilled down to an interesting question and answer:

  • Question: Why would the boaters pay, when they can get away without paying.
  • Answer: The boaters cannot be trusted. This is why in comparable situations, there are train conductors walking around collecting tickets and parking lot attendants checking payments in payment boxes against cars in the parking lot spaces.

Once the team had uncovered their underlying belief—that boaters are not trustworthy—they decided to conduct some research to determine whether their belief was accurate. What they discovered was that “99.5 percent of moorage customers voluntarily paid their moorage fees; the average underpaid amount was 54 cents. The team also learned that customers often overpaid because they did not have exact change. The team concluded that it was not cost effective to spend $300 a day to chase an average of $2.60 a day.”

In this case, Five Whys played an important role in drilling down to underlying issues and assumptions. But the Five Why process was just one tool used, and not sufficient to analyze the issue or develop the appropriate solution—in this case, ending an unproductive and onerous invoicing system.

Five Whys in Context

Five Whys is a terrific tool for uncovering hidden layers of problems that can be addressed as needed. It’s also a great way for unearthing attitudes, assumptions, and morale issues that have not been discussed or clarified. According to Eric Ries, entrepreneur-in-residence at Harvard Business School, it’s also a great way to find the human problems underlying technical issues, and to address each layer of the problem proportionately. 

For example, the problem is that computers are breaking down so often that work is conducted at a crawl:

  • Why? Because the computers are very old and the software is not compatible with newer systems.
  • Why? Because new computers and software have not been purchased in five years.
  • Why? Because IT’s budget is too small to support regular upgrades.
  • Why? Because the manager in charge of IT has not made an effective case for a budget increase.
  • Why? Because the manager in charge of IT is new and has not been trained in management skills.
Five Why Analysis: Example of a Computer Problem Drill-Down.

This Five Whys scenario, which is fairly typical, starts with a technical problem—slow computers—lays bare several actionable concerns, and ends with a human issue which could be addressed fairly simply. By following Reis’s recommendations, the company could: 

  1. Train new managers.
  2. Develop a process whereby managers have an opportunity to make their case for budget increases.
  3. Consider increasing the budget for hardware and software upgrades.
  4. Purchase new computers and software upgrades as needed.

Of course, all these action steps are easy to lay out and much harder to implement. Five Whys is a good way to get started, but it’s never enough to get the whole job done. It's just one more tool in your problem solving toolkit.


Graphic Credit: Shovel designed by Scott Lewis from the Noun Project.

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