The 5 Whys: A Powerful Problem-Solving Tool

The 5 Whys can be used for everything from fixing a broken appliance to solving a complex business issue. This article discusses how you actually use it.

Published 23 Sep 2022

What is the 5 Whys Technique?

The 5 Whys is a problem-solving technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationship that leads to a particular problem. The name derives from the method's frequent utilization of the question "Why?" This repeating question is used to determine the root cause of a problem by repeating why the problem occurs five times. Each answer forms the basis for the next question.

It’s a simple but powerful technique that can help you get to the bottom of things in a thorough manner. It can be used for anything from figuring out why your car keeps breaking down to understanding why a project is behind schedule. It’s a great way to get clarity and find solutions fast. 

Benefits

When it comes to problem-solving, the 5 Whys is one of the simplest techniques around. But don’t let its simplicity fool you—it’s a powerful tool that can help you get to the root of any issue. The beauty of the 5 Whys is that it helps you get to the heart of the issue quickly and easily. And it’s a great tool for troubleshooting problems in your business. Here are some of its benefits:

  • Identifies the root cause of the problem
  • Helps you analyze and understand how one action can cause a chain of problems
  • Gets you to the root cause quickly
  • Does not use any complicated techniques for problem-solving
  • Figures out the relationship between the various root causes
  • Is very effective as a solution for simple problems

Origins

The 5 Whys technique was developed in the 1930s by Sakichi Toyoda, a mechanic who was always looking for ways to improve the efficiency of his work. He found that the best way to do this was to ask why his processes were failing. He would ask why five times until he got to the root of the problem. Simple as that!

The 5 whys is now a popular problem-solving technique that’s used in businesses all over the world. It’s simple yet amazingly effective at getting to the root of a problem.

How It Works

Let’s say you’ve got a problem. You know what it is, but you’re not sure how to fix it. This is where the 5 Whys come in.

Here’s how it works: you ask yourself why the problem happened, and then you ask yourself that question again and again until you get to the root of the issue.

The key is to ask why five times. Why did the problem happen? Why did the previous solution fail? And so on. This helps you get down to the root cause of the issue and find a solution that will actually work.

This is a great technique when you’re stuck and don’t know how to move forward. It can help you get clarity and come up with a solution that works for you.

Here’s a perfect example:

Main Problem

The customer refused to pay for the product.

Why?

The customer saw that there was damage to the product when it was opened.

Why?

The product got damaged during the delivery.

Why?

The product, which is made of glass, fell causing it to crack.

Why?

There was no safety packaging for the product.

Why? (Root Cause)

It was not properly inspected during the packaging process.

 

What are the 5 Whys in Six Sigma?

The 5 whys tools can be used in a variety of situations. It’s used in root cause analysis and Six Sigma to get to the root of a problem.

As we all know, Six Sigma is a process improvement methodology used in various industries to achieve near-perfection in their processes. Within that metholodogy, the 5 whys tool is used specifically for the DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control) framework.

As a result, it helps Six Sigma practitioners find the root cause of a problem by asking successive “why” questions. 

When to Use this Method

This technique can be used when you’re trying to solve a specific problem understand why something went wrong. It can also be used to come up with new ideas or solutions.

The great thing about the 5 Whys is that it helps you get to the root of the problem, and it also encourages creativity and brainstorming. So if you’re facing a challenging problem, this is a technique you should try.

Limitations

The 5 Whys is a great tool for problem-solving, but it has some limitations. For example, it can be difficult to apply this technique to more complex problems. Aside from this, here are some of the constraints when using this method:

  • This method is not recommended for complex problems as it may not lead to the main cause. This is because the 5 whys will lead to a single source, which may be a problem if there is a need for multiple solutions.
  • It is reliant on the skills of the team facilitator. One wrong question or answer can lead to completely throwing off the questions, thus leading to a wrong root cause.
  • The 5 whys method may not show all possible issues caused by the main problem. 

How to Use the 5 Whys Method

Now that you know all about the 5 Whys method, let’s talk about how to use it. So how do you implement the 5 Whys tool? Here’s a quick and easy guide to get you started:

#1. Gather and Assemble a Team.

The first step is to create a team that is familiar with the problem or issue at hand. Familiarity with the issue is essential because this will determine the right questions to ask thus solving the problem correctly.

#2. Identify the Problem.

Next is to identify the problem at hand. Once you’ve done that, it’s time to discuss it with your team by writing down a brief statement or question of what the agreed issue needs to be solved. A team member can right down the statement while leaving enough space for why questions.

#3. Ask the 5 Whys.

Now is the time to ask the first why. The first question must pertain to why the problem occurred. The question must be based on facts and related to the issue. Keep going until you reach the root cause of the problem.

#4. Brainstorm Solutions to the Root Cause.

Once you’ve identified the root cause, you can start brainstorming solutions. It’s important to remember that not every solution will work, but the goal is to find a solution that will prevent the problem from happening again.

#5. Test the Solution. 

So how do you know if the solution is effective? You need to test it. Modify the solution as needed and repeat the test until you’re satisfied that it’s working.

 

5 Whys FAQ

Yes and no. The great thing about 5 whys is that it can be used by anyone facing simple problems. However, for complex problems that require detailed solutions, using 5 whys may not be ideal.

The 5 Whys technique is based on the premise that the root cause of a problem can be found by asking why five times. With this method, you can get to the root of the issue and find appropriate solutions.

There is no hard and fast rule for how many times you should ask why before you reach the root cause. However, if you find yourself going in circles or asking the same question multiple times, it’s likely that you haven’t yet reached the root cause.

There are various ways to document 5 whys. One way is to use a cause and effect diagram, also known as an Ishikawa diagram or fishbone diagram. This type of diagram can be used to brainstorm the possible causes of a problem. Another way to document 5 whys is to simply write down the question and answer for each step.

Shella Marie Ang

SafetyCulture staff writer

Shella Marie Ang

Shella Marie Ang is a content contributor for SafetyCulture. Cultivating her experience in social media marketing, virtual assistance, and SEO has helped her create compelling content for websites and blogs. Her medical background also has given her an edge when it comes to writing medical and health-related content. She loves reading in her free time and being around other creatives.

Shella Marie Ang is a content contributor for SafetyCulture. Cultivating her experience in social media marketing, virtual assistance, and SEO has helped her create compelling content for websites and blogs. Her medical background also has given her an edge when it comes to writing medical and health-related content. She loves reading in her free time and being around other creatives.