Determine the Root Cause of Any Problem With 5 Whys

More often than not, things don’t really go your way. Your proven processes go awry, the machinery breaks,  leading to a metaphorical fire in the company offices. Every other department is running around panicking, trying to figure out what happened.

The thing is, though, even if you manage to solve the problem for that specific issue (think, using duct tape to piece a machine back together, use a fire extinguisher to kill a spontaneous fire, etc.), your work is not really done. Unless you determine the root cause of the problem, as in, what caused it, the problem is bound to arise again.

The 5 Whys method is a popular process improvement and problem-solving technique, allowing you to determine what caused any given problem.

So What’s the 5 Whys Method?

The 5 Whys, as we’ve already mentioned, is a technique used for determining the root cause of any given issue. The gist of it is, whenever something goes wrong, you keep asking “why?” five times until you determine what the problem really is. Here’s a practical example to give you a better idea of how this works.

You’re a sales manager in a software company. At the end of Q2, on a meeting with management, you realize that the sales are down significantly compared to the past year (and not hitting the KPIs, to boot). You organize a meeting with the rest of the management team and conduct the 5 Whys analysis…

  1. Why are the sales down?
    • Because the sales team isn’t closing as many leads as before
  2. Why?
    • Because the leads are weaker and significantly harder to sell to
  3.  Why?
    • The marketing team has been trying out new lead generation partners
  4. Why?
    • Because the finance department denied working with the old partner
  5. Why?
    • Because the old partner upped their rates by 20%

After finishing the analysis, you already have several different options on how to fix the issue. You could, for example, count the numbers and determine whether the old partner’s new rates are worthwhile for you (higher sales and profits, despite the upped margin). Or, you might want to try new lead generation companies, some of which could be an even better match than the last.



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Then, you write down the potential solutions, assign a responsible person for each, and set up a meeting to report back on the findings.

The History of the 5 Whys Technique

The 5 Whys was first developed by Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer who is considered to be the father of the Toyota Production System. It is based on the Toyota’s “go and see” philosophy, which focuses on going out on the field and figuring out what really is happening, rather than basing decisions on what the management thinks could be happening.

The 5 Whys analysis method became popular somewhere around the 1970s. Because of its simplicity and potential, however, it’s still being used today a tool in several different process improvement methodologies…

  • Kaizen – Toyota’s philosophy of continuous improvement. It’s based on continually analyzing and improving company processes using scientific management
  • Business Process Management – Methodology of streamlining, improving and managing company processes
  • Six Sigma – A set of tools and techniques used for minimizing waste and defects in business processes

How to do the 5 Whys Analysis

If something goes wrong, first things first – you’ve got to put out all the fires. After the crisis is averted, it’s time to figure why it happened and how to make sure it never happens again.

The step one is to get the ball rolling – invited everyone that’s remotely related to the incident. Usually, this includes the members of a given team (Think, engineering for software crash). Then, you assign the role of facilitator for the meeting. This should either be department head or a specialist most knowledgeable on the issue (Think, CTO vs Cyber Security Expert). As a given, there should also be someone to document the meeting, ensuring that you don’t miss out on some important point.

Then, before you even begin the 5 Whys analysis, you need to pinpoint and formalize the exact problem. If you don’t have a clearly defined goal for the meeting, it might turn out that each of your team members is solving a completely different issue.

Finally, ask away! Keep asking “why?” until you manage to discover at least one possible root cause of the issue. Once you’ve pointed out the problem,  assign relevant team members to come up with and apply the solution.



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Document and Follow-up

Sometimes, the first solution you come up with might not be the best (or, it might not work at all). It’s important to document the entire process, from brainstorming to problem-solving and let everyone on the team know.

So, once the initial meeting is over, make sure that everyone has the notes and is aware of what the next steps are. The employees that are in charge of solving the problem should also document their work and in case the solution fails, report back.

If the solution isn’t working, or if there’s more than one root cause to the issue, you can always start the whole process all over again, conducting another 5 Whys analysis.

Human Error as the Root Cause

Sometimes, the 5 Whys analysis will determine that the root cause of the problem is some employee’s mistake.

Making sure this kind of mistakes don’t happen can be hard. While you can put out the fires, you can’t ensure that no one will make the same mistake again. It’s all too human to mess up here and there, after all.

What you can do, though, is minimize these chances the best you can.

By using Workflow Management Software, you can standardize your processes. This way, your employees will have software looking over their work, ensuring that every step of the way is carried out without mistakes.

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