How to find root cause using Five Whys?

By Altay Gursel | August 8, 2020

5Ys or Five Whys: Root Cause Analysis

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Five whys

Have you ever had a problem that has continued to reoccur?

Trying to deal with a problem more than once is frustrating and time-consuming. It will also likely to waste valuable resources we have.  

Here is why it usually happens.

A lot of times we don’t work to figure out the root cause of the problems. We rather focus on treating the symptoms. If we don’t permanently fix a problem, it will inevitably reoccur at some time in the future.

There’s an easy-to-use procedure that will help us eliminating issues not to happen repeatedly. It is called Five Whys, or 5Ys.

If properly executed it will help your issues to be solved permanently by focusing on the root cause of them.

Let’s have a look at where it comes from.

5 Whys was developed in the 1930s by Mr. Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Motors, one of the pioneers of Japan’s industrial revolution. During the 1970s, his method gained prominence. Today it is still used by Toyota and many other companies around the world.

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What are 5 Whys?

The 5 Whys approach simply asks the question of “Why” sufficient times until it gets us to the root cause of a problem. The genius idea behind is bypassing all the symptoms of an issue by being repetitive with our “Why”.

The 5 Why method is commonly used during the analysis of the DMAIC process, and at the planning stage of PDCA activities.

It is usually utilized in conjunction with other analytical tools like the Cause and Effect Diagram. However, it can be used by itself only too.

This method provides the best results when the answers come from people who have a significant level of expertise with the process being analyzed.

How To Perform 5 Whys Analysis?

Step 1: Build a team

The 5 Whys analysis should be carried out by a Cross-Functional Team (CFT) and shouldn’t be performed by a single person only.

build a team

The team should consist of real experts in their niches. These experts should have extensive information about either a partial section or the overall structure of the entire process.

Every participant in the team should contribute with their own unique perspective and ask critical questions that may not have been addressed otherwise.

Step 2: Identify The Problem

If we don’t know what the problem is, we cannot fix it. The first step to take is clearly identifying the actual problem in the root cause analysis. When doing that, the team should create a clear and concise description of the problem.

identify the problem

The team should remain focused on the process rather than the staff. They should also establish the scope to be covered to solve the problem. If the scope is defined as too thin, the problem-solving exercise could lead to minor improvements only although much larger improvements need to be done. 

On the other hand, identifying a problem with too wide a scope might extend the necessary solution time, and produce solutions that might be really expensive and difficult to implement.

When you spend your time to definitively describe the problem upfront, it will often save a lot of time, and make it easier to solve the problem.

Step 3: Ask Why (Reason Behind Matters)

As the first step, the team leader should inquire “Why” the problem has arisen. Facts or evidence must back up all the answers, rather than subjective opinions. Answers should also concentrate solely on process or system errors.

The team leader should verify if the root cause of the problem is identified, corrected, and prevented not to repeat in the future again. If all the verification results positively meet the expectations, you can move to the second “Why”, then the third, fourth, and fifth one until the answer is no.

You don’t always have to ask “why” exactly five times. You may find the root cause on your third or fourth “Why”. It may also sometime take more than five times to find the true reason for a problem.

Step 4: Find and Take Corrective Actions

Upon identifying the root cause(s), a list of proper corrective measures should be incorporated to address each underlying root cause. “How” is a valuable tool for brainstorming underlying causes, and cultivating necessary actions to solve the problem.

The team leader should ask the 5 Hows to deal with the existing issue. How can this cause be detected and prevented not to happen next time? Keep asking “How” until you get to the root solution that resolves the root cause. Every action should have an owner and exact deadline.

Doing regular meetings is very valuable to keep the team updated on the status of actions. After the completion of each recommended action, the efficiency of the taken actions should be measured and recorded.

A Few Example of 5 Why

There are many different formats used to practice the 5 Why exercise. Some more simple some others more complicated.

Here is an example.

Problem statement: Your website is performing poorly in SERP results.

1 – Why: You have content that is poor quality or irrelevant.

2 – Why: Your site architecture, site design is not structured implementing the best SEO practices, and to provide a good user experience.

3 – Why: You don’t have high-quality links or domain authority in comparison to the other sites you compete with.

4 – Why: There may be an algorithmic update affecting your site together with all other sites on the web.

5 – Why: You know SEO less than you think you know, and you need to educate yourself.

Obviously there can be so many different reasons for a website to rank on Google poorly in the search results. The above example is given only to show how to perform a 5 Why analysis.

Here is another example is shown in the below image.

Example for 5 whys

This example is more simplistic since all the steps are closely tied to each other.

Getting caught speeding in the morning is resolved, and prevented for not happening next time by having a new alarm clock that plugs into the mains, or its batteries to be replaced at set intervals.

The main advantage of using 5 Whys is creating a ladder structure to follow a process until the underlining problem is found and resolved.

Although this process looks very simple, it is overlooked by many experts in different niches. However, successful businesses like Toyota implementing it already a long time. I believe there is definitely a great benefit using it in whatever we are doing since we are not any smarter than Toyota.

Luckily, you don’t have to walk the long way Toyota walked as in his time.

Nowadays there are professional solutions that can offer comprehensive tools for faster product innovation. I would recommend checking out TCGen since the company offers professional solutions that allow creating innovative products faster.