5 Whys root cause analysis — what it is, when it’s helpful, and how to use it

Every business faces problems, and some require more time and effort to resolve than others. For example, customers not getting software update notifications on time or inventories always running low during peak seasons are examples of bigger issues that may not be easily solved. Sometimes there are quick solutions to implement, but these usually don’t address the root cause and the problem reoccurs.

Successful companies have learned how to quickly identify the source of difficult problems and implement solutions to prevent them from reoccurring. The “5 Whys” problem-solving technique is a proven approach to finding the root cause of nearly any issue. It can be easily adapted by any organization and used to initiate sustainable solutions.

This post will help you get started by explaining:

Origin of the 5 Whys

The 5 Whys technique was developed by Sakich Toyoda, the inventor and industrialist who founded Toyota Industries. He believed that to truly solve a problem you have to move beyond the boardroom and find the root cause, using the insights of those with first-hand knowledge of the situation. The 5 Whys was so effective it was integrated into the Toyota Production System.

“The basis of Toyota’s scientific approach is to ask ‘why’ five times whenever we find a problem. By repeating, the problem — as well as its solution — becomes clear.”
- Taichi Ohno, considered the father of the Toyota Production System

The 5 Whys is also part of the Six Sigma DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, improve, control) methodology, which is a framework for improving the results of company processes.

After assembling a team with first-hand knowledge of the problem, the 5 Whys technique asks “Why is this problem occurring?” This leads to an answer that is questioned with four successive “whys.” Each round of questioning gets closer to the source, or root cause, of the problem.

Once the answer to “why?” is no longer useful for identifying the cause, the questioning stops and the team moves on to formulating a solution. While the technique is called the 5 Whys, there is no required number of times to ask “why.” The questioning should only stop when the answers are no longer helpful — whether it’s three or ten times.

When to use the 5 Whys

Organizations can lose focus when dealing with difficult or challenging circumstances that threaten to become major obstacles to sustained growth and profitability.

The power of the 5 Whys technique is that it can help solve nearly any problem, provided participants are close to the situation and offer relevant and factual answers. The 5 Whys is especially effective at solving problems that involve a human element or interaction, such as a situation involving data entry or personal judgment like manually reordering stock or parts.

How to use the 5 Whys root cause analysis

The 5 Whys is very constructive but also remarkably simple. As long as you are careful to build the right team at the beginning, you can get to the bottom of almost any issue or challenge facing the company.

White boards and paper have traditionally been used by in-office teams to capture each step, but remote and hybrid teams are switching to collaboration apps for virtual support. Specialized software can help support a 5 Whys analysis.

1. Build a team

The first step to a successful 5 Whys analysis is to build an informed team. Participants should be close to the issue or problem and have firsthand knowledge of the processes and failures. Small , cross-functional, multidisciplinary teams work best. Team members should come from separate departments, hold different positions, and represent varied levels of experience. Teams with diverse backgrounds and perspectives are more likely to provide better insights into the problem’s root cause.

Once the team is assembled, select a facilitator. This person’s role is to encourage discussion of each “why?” while keeping the team focused on getting to the root of the problem. The facilitator guides the process through each step and builds trust so that participants feel free to contribute.

2. Define the problem

The team’s initial task is to clearly define the problem. View the problem in action, if possible, and then diagram it and discuss it. The problem statement should describe the difference between the current situation and the way things should be. Document and revise the problem statement until a final version is agreed on.

“Some customers are not paying their invoices on time,” is an example of a problem statement. It’s clear, concise, and describes what’s different from the way things should be, which is receiving payments on time.

3. Ask the first “why”

Determine why the problem is occurring. This will be the broadest question within the 5 Whys process. This first question might be, “Why are the software update notifications going out to customers late?” or, “Why is the inventory always low during the peak sales season?”

The team then agrees on a clear, succinct phrase to answer the question and records it. It’s important that the answer be factual and not opinion or speculation if you’re going to drill down to find the true source of the problem.

4. Ask “why” four more times

The answer to the first “why?” is then questioned. The question and answer process continues until the answers no longer provide insights into the root cause of the problem. The final answer should be agreed on by the team as the root cause.

For more complex situations there can be multiple reasons for the problem, and the “why?” questioning may need to break into multiple lanes to arrive at several possible root causes. The entire process generally takes about five rounds of questioning, though it can be completed in fewer or more rounds depending on the type and complexity of the problem.

5. Determine next steps

Once the root cause has been identified, the team should discuss the solution and identify steps to solve the problem. The 5 Whys method refers to these steps as countermeasures. If multiple root causes are identified, the team should choose one to start with and address each in turn.

An appropriate member of the team is then assigned responsibility for implementing the countermeasures necessary to resolve the situation.

6. Monitor the process to resolution

The team should meet on a regular basis to monitor the success of the countermeasures. If the problem does not get resolved, the solution should be modified until the situation starts to turn around.

Once the problem has been resolved, the team should document the process and share the results and insights with the rest of the organization. This step is particularly important for developing risk management plans for future problem prevention.

Example of the 5 Whys technique in use

Here’s a real life example of how the 5 Whys technique works. Imagine a sales and marketing team is reviewing a page view report and realizing that views for existing product pages have recently declined. Their 5 Whys might look something like this:

Problem: Website views for existing product pages have been declining.

Root cause: Unable to find replacement marketing staff with the right skill set.

Countermeasure or solution: Have the product teams develop new content for the websites until more marketing staff can be hired.

In this example, a cross-functional team used the 5 Whys to analyze why the company’s existing product website views were decreasing and identified next steps to resolve the problem. While not obvious from the start, they identified the root cause to be difficulty hiring marketing staff. Their countermeasure required the product teams to pitch in to provide updated website content until the marketing department could hire replacement staff to resume the regular website refresh process.

It’s important that the team continue to meet regularly to monitor the progress of their solution. In this case, the content provided by the product department was too technical and not appropriate for the websites. The 5 Whys team modified its recommendation by having the marketing department help uplevel the content to focus on customer needs. Working together, the product and marketing departments were able to refresh existing website content while launching new products despite being short staffed.

Getting started with the 5 Whys technique

The 5 Whys root cause analysis method is ideal for finding the source of almost any workplace problem. In addition to being efficient and cost effective, the process opens up communications between employees and encourages cross-functional collaboration. It can also help with problem prevention by giving employees the tools to recognize issues early on and solve problems faster.

When you’re ready to get started, remember that building the right team is a crucial first step. Gather team members who are close to the problem but also from a variety of departments and skill levels.

Adobe Workfront can help by bringing remote, hybrid, and in-office work teams together. Workfront enables collaborative management by integrating people and data across organizations and managing work from start to finish.

Watch the overview video or take a free product tour to learn more about Adobe Workfront and how it can streamline any kind of project management.