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5 Whys – How To Find The Root Cause Of A Problem

5 Whys – How To Find The Root Cause Of A Problem

5 whys is a simple technique to find the reason behind a problem by repeatedly asking why 5 times.

Have you encountered a kid who shot one question after another at you? Even if nothing was at stake, you found the process tougher than a job interview, didn’t you? We’ve all experienced that before.

I can bet that you wanted to break free from the invisible clutches of the kid because you didn’t have a suitable answer for each question. But interestingly, the kid did not apply a lot of thought or ask you sophisticated questions to stump you. You were bombarded with questions like, “Why?” “How” “When”. Even if you stuttered and made up some answer, you faced another question right after. You had no place to run and hide.

What if you could apply a similar technique yourself to find what caused a poor result, a mistake, or an unwanted outcome? That’s the essence of the 5 whys technique. The only difference is, instead of asking various questions as a kid does, you only keep asking ‘why’ until you no longer have an answer.

5 whys

Let’s give it a shot.

Problem: You’re unable to reach work on time on most days

  • Why? – You leave late everyday
  • Why? – You fail to wake up at the first alarm
  • Why? – You are too tired and groggy-eyed because you slept late
  • Why? – You had dinner at midnight
  • Why? – You started cooking at 10 PM

Though the name of the technique mentions 5 whys, you can continue asking why until you cannot find an answer anymore. You stop there and look at your last answer. It indicates the cause of your problem.

In the above example, you realize that you’re unable to reach work on time because you cook your dinner late each night. That was an unexpected turn of events, wasn’t it? You wouldn’t have guessed that the time you cooked dinner led to your delay in reaching the office.

So, how do you fix your problem? You have to start cooking early. Bam! You just found a solution to your problem.

How to use the 5 whys technique

In theory, using the 5 whys technique is simple. All you need to do is start with a problem and keep asking why until you arrive at the final cause. Let’s break the whole process down step by step.

Step 1: Define the problem

What are you trying to solve using 5 whys? Describe your problem in a sentence or two.

The technique works best for recurring problems that you cannot narrow down a reason for.

Step 2: Ask yourself why did the problem occur

Take your problem definition and add a why before it.

Step 3: Come up with a simple and honest answer

Do not try to analyze extensively for each why. Find the most straightforward explanation for every ‘why’ you ask yourself. You have to be honest for the method to yield results. Without an open mind to accept your mistakes, the technique can do more damage than good.

Step 4: Repeat asking why until you have no answer or find an opportunity to take corrective action

Once you have an answer for a why, repeat the process of asking whys again and again. After a point, you’ll no longer have an answer or you will find a cause that you could have avoided. In most cases, you’ll reach there within 5 whys. Sometimes you’d need more of them and sometimes fewer.

Related article: How to identify your faults

Step 5: Decide the corrective action

Once you have the root cause, decide what your corrective action should be to prevent the problem from occurring in the future.

Example of applying the 5 whys technique as an individual

Let’s apply the 5 steps outlined above.

You’re a professional badminton player who lost the first round of the tournament against a weaker opponent.

5 whys example individual
  • Step 1: Define the problem
    • Lost the first round of the badminton tournament against a weaker player
  • Step 2: Ask why
    • Why did I lose the first round of the badminton tournament?
  • Step 3: Come up with a simple and honest answer
    • I was rusty during the match
  • Step 4: Repeat until you no longer have an answer or find an opportunity to take corrective action
    • Why was I rusty today during the match? (second why)
      • I didn’t warm-up and practice well
    • Why didn’t I didn’t practice and warm-up well? (third why)
      • I was overconfident of winning
    • Why was I overconfident of winning? (fourth why)
      • I thought the opponent was new

So, you arrived at the root cause of the problem. You lost the match because you assumed you’d win against a lesser-known opponent even without practice.

  • Step 5: Decide the corrective action
    • Now that you have narrowed down the root cause for your defeat, you must determine the appropriate corrective action to avoid similar losses in the future.
    • So, next time, irrespective of the opponent, you must warm-up and practice to give your best.

Related article: How to change your mindset for success

Example of applying the 5 whys technique as a team

You can not only apply 5 whys as an individual, but also as a team.

The technique originated from Toyota Motors. Sakichi Toyoda, the founder, introduced the methodology to decide if any new feature must be incorporated into their manufacturing system. Toyota followed the technique intensively from the early days and set themselves apart from their competition as a result.

Over the years, the technique was found effective to identify root causes of problems too. If you’re hired at Toyota today, you’ll encounter the technique during the induction process. Now, the 5 whys has extended further and become a part of Kaizen, lean manufacturing, and Six Sigma.

Here is an example of applying 5 whys as a group or a team where you failed to meet a deadline:

5 whys example team
  • Step 1: Define the problem
    • Problem statement: We failed to complete the project as per the deadline.

At first glance, one might attribute the negligence or incompetency of the development team for the delay. But was that truly the case? Asking why will help us find out.

  • Step 2: Ask why
    • Why did we fail to complete the project as per the deadline?
  • Step 3: Come up with a simple and honest answer
    • Why: We were short on time to complete 3 modules
  • Step 4: Repeat until you no longer have an answer or find an opportunity to take corrective action
    • Why were we short on time to complete 3 modules? (second why)
      • Our deadlines were too harsh because developers spent over 12 hours a day working.
    • Why were our deadlines were too harsh? (third why)
      • Our initial effort planning was wrong
    • Why was our initial effort planning wrong? (fourth why)
      • We anticipated that some of the unknowns had easy solutions without any proof. In reality, they took much longer.
    • Why did we make the wrong assumptions with the unknowns? (fifth why)
      • We rushed through the estimation phase
    • Why did we rush through the estimation phase? (sixth why)
      • We wanted to get started quickly
  • Step 5: Decide the corrective action
    • As a team, you learned the following
      • Do not rush through the estimation phase
      • Allow buffer time for unknowns and research
      • Start implementation only after meticulous estimation.

The reason for failing to meet the deadline was primarily due to the errors in estimation. To solve the problem, the team can set a realistic timeline to complete the next project instead of going aggressive.

Related article: How to meet your deadlines

Pointers for applying the 5 whys technique effectively

Though powerful, 5 whys will yield results only when you apply it the right way. These pointers ensure that you’re going about the technique without committing any mistakes:

1. Work on the corrective action

The whole purpose of the 5 whys technique is to improve your future decisions and actions. Going through the exercise will tingle your brain cells and provide the instant gratification of doing work. But, if you’re identifying the root cause, and not applying any corrective action, you’re only wasting time.

2. Apply only for small and medium problems

The beauty of the 5 whys technique lies in its simplicity. Therefore, keep its application to simple and moderate problems alone. Sophisticated situations have various interrelated causes which a ‘why’ will fail to unearth.

3. Use paper/whiteboard

The technique encourages you to think. When you use a computer, typing can interrupt your flow of thought. Therefore, for best results, pull out a notebook and a pen. You can use a whiteboard if you have one.

Related article: 7 Techniques to improve your critical thinking skills

4. Use the most prominent why

Some of the whys can have more than one direct answer. Whenever you run into such a scenario, use your discretion to decide the right step forward.

  • You can choose the most sensible answer
  • You can start a separate path for each answer and continue asking why. By the end of that exercise, you’ll end up with different root causes and corrective actions.

5. Understand cause and effect

Not every solution solves the root cause. For example, if you’re reaching the office late, you can fix the problem by driving faster too. If you answer ‘Why do I reach late to work’ with ‘I’m not driving fast enough’, you will overlook the true reason. Answer the why with a cause that led to the effect, not with a workaround to fix the problem.

6. Consider the level of trust in the team

As a team, use the 5 whys technique only when people have strong bonding and trust among each other. If the rapport between people is flimsy, the 5 whys can turn into a blaming session. Instead of reaching a root cause, you’ll end up with a bunch of offended people waiting to strike back with vengeance on the people who called them out.

Use the 5 whys as a team activity only when the people are comfortable discussing each others’ mistakes in public.


5 whys is a technique that appears too simple on the surface but works like a charm every time you apply it to the right problem with the right approach. I used to believe that the methodology was blown out of proportion, so I never attempted it myself. But when I was forced to apply it to a problem as a team, I realized how it could narrow one’s thinking down to a few causes.

If you’re not convinced of the method yet, give it a shot. After all, you’ll only need a few seconds to complete your first exercise in your head. Soon after your trial, you’ll want to apply it to your real-life problems more often. If not, you only lost a few minutes. No biggie.

So, what are you waiting for? Find a problem and get started with the whys.

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