In a Word When confronted with a problem, have you ever stopped and asked “why” five times? The Five Whys technique is a simple but powerful way to troubleshoot problems by exploring cause-and-effect relationships.

Rationale

For every effect there is a cause. But the results chain between the two is fairly long and becomes finer as one moves from inputs to activities, outputs, outcome, and impact.Footnote 1 In results-based management ,Footnote 2 the degree of control one enjoys decreases higher up the chain and the challenge of monitoring and evaluating correspondingly increases.

In due course, when a problem appears, the temptation is strong to blame others or external events. Yet, the root cause of problems often lies closer to home.

For Want of a Nail

For want of a nail the shoe is lost;

For want of a shoe the horse is lost;

For want of a horse the rider is lost;

For want of a rider the battle is lost;

For want of a battle the kingdom is lost;

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

—George Herbert

The Five Whys Technique

When looking to solve a problem, it helps to begin at the end result, reflect on what caused that, and question the answer five times.Footnote 3 This elementary and often effective approach to problem solving promotes deep thinking through questioning, and can be adapted quickly and applied to most problems.Footnote 4 Most obviously and directly, the Five Whys technique relates to the principle of systematic problem-solving: without the intent of the principle, the technique can only be a shell of the process. Hence, there are three key elements to effective use of the Five Whys technique: (i) accurate and complete statements of problems,Footnote 5 (ii) complete honesty in answering the questions, (iii) the determination to get to the bottom of problems and resolve them. The technique was developed by Sakichi Toyoda for the Toyota Industries Corporation.

Process

The Five-Whys exercise is vastly improved when applied by a team and there are five basic steps to conducting it:

  • Gather a team and develop the problem statement in agreement. After this is done, decide whether or not additional individuals are needed to resolve the problem.

  • Ask the first “why” of the team: why is this or that problem taking place? There will probably be three or four sensible answers: record them all on a flip chart or whiteboard, or use index cards taped to a wall.

  • Ask four more successive “whys,” repeating the process for every statement on the flip chart, whiteboard, or index cards. Post each answer near its “parent”. Follow up on all plausible answers. You will have identified the root cause when asking “why” yields no further useful information. (If necessary, continue to ask questions beyond the arbitrary five layers to get to the root cause.)

  • Among the dozen or so answers to the last asked “why” look for systemic causes of the problem. Discuss these and settle on the most likely systemic cause. Follow the team session with a debriefing and show the product to others to confirm that they see logic in the analysis.

  • After settling on the most probable root cause of the problem and obtaining confirmation of the logic behind the analysis, develop appropriate corrective actions to remove the root cause from the system. The actions can (as the case demands) be undertaken by others but planning and implementation will benefit from team inputs.

    figure b

    Fig. Five whys worksheet. Source Author

Caveat

The Five Whys technique has been criticized as too basic a tool to analyze root causes to the depth required to ensure that the causes are fixed. The reasons for this criticism include:

  • The tendency of investigators to stop at symptoms, and not proceed to lower level root causes.

  • The inability of investigators to cast their minds beyond current information and knowledge.

  • Lack of facilitation and support to help investigators ask the right questions.

  • The low repeat rate of results: different teams using the Five Whys technique have been known to come up with different causes for the same problem.

Clearly, the Five Whys technique will suffer if it is applied through deduction only. The process articulated earlier encourages on-the-spot verification of answers to the current “why” question before proceeding to the next, and should help avoid such issues.