Five Whys: A Fast Path to Solve Problems

It is interesting that one of the most straightforward methods of problem solving and root cause analysis keeps resurfacing in my work. When I was first introduced to the ‘Five Whys’ almost two decades ago, its deceptive simplicity caused me to seek more esoteric methods. After all, I was in graduate school, and I was looking for advanced education. And this was not only not advanced, it was laughably simple.

Fast forward to today, and now I will describe the Five Whys in a different way. Fast, simple, complete, actionable. Things I really care about as a business person who doesn’t have enough time in the day to complete my to-do list. And then, I might quote Leonardo da Vinci to punctuate my perspective with emphasis, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

And that is really what the Five Whys is all about: a very sophisticated problem solving technique. Basically, the way it works is that you make a problem statement, and then proceed to ask “why” to each answer five times, making sure the previous response forms the basis of the new question. Supposedly the number five comes from an empirical observation that on average, five iterations get you to the root cause. Most people say that you can ask fewer or more than five whys, and I have a tendency to question until I have something I can do something about, something actionable.

To complete a Five Whys Analysis, follow the three steps below:

  1. Write down your specific business problem clearly and completely. A good statement of the problem will set you off in the right direction.
  2. Ask “why” the problem happens and write down your answer.
  3. Continue asking “why” to the previous answer until all participants agree that the problem’s root cause has been identified. [Remember, you may ask “why” fewer or more than five times.]

Here is an example of the Five Whys in action:

5 Whys Example

It is incredible how many different ways the Five Ways can be applied within a business environment. Here are just a few examples we use in our day-to-day operations:

  • Sales: to learn why prospective clients have set objectives and goals.
  • Marketing: to develop a message that would appeal to target prospects.
  • Service Delivery: to determine how marketing programs can achieve even greater success.
  • Processes/Operations: to identify how to resolve bottlenecks or improve efficiencies.

There are some criticisms of the Five Whys that should be kept in mind if you want to implement this technique within your organization. Some of the problems with this methodology include:

  • Stopping the investigation at a symptom level versus continuing to get to the root cause.
  • Inability to perceive options and alternatives outside the current scope of knowledge.
  • An organizational culture that dissuades asking the most relevant “why” questions or that is focused on assigning blame vs solving problems.
  • Determination of root causes that vary depending on the investigator’s capabilities to identify the most relevant next “why” question.

My experience is that the investigation of the Five Whys is very dependent on the skill to form good questions that take you to a deeper level of understanding, and this skill is developed over time. Also, it is very important to have all the participants in the process(es) participate in the problem solving, so as to avoid mistaken root cause identification that arise from lack of full information.

However, once you try this method of root cause analysis a few times, and have some success with it, you will be as excited as I am to have this in your kit bag of problem solving tools. Good luck and happy problem solving!

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Author: Lisa Maier

Lisa Maier is the CEO of LocalDirective, and brings great passion and over a decade of experience in the online marketing space. Her background includes a undergraduate degrees in Economics and Sociology, a Wharton MBA degree in Information Strategies & Economics, top tier technology strategy consulting and several years helping small technology companies traverse the chasm from good products to nationally scaled businesses, particularly making use of online marketing and media programs.