How to Get to the Root of Problem: Ask Why it Happened Five Times, The Five Whys Method

If something has gone wrong or you feel it is going wrong either personally or in your business, one of the best and simplest ways to try to get to the root of what is happening is to ask why. Several times. 

This root cause analysis technique is credited to Sakichi Toyoda, an innovative Japanese inventor and businessman who in was born in 1867 in Kosai a small town in south-eastern Japan. In 1930 Toyoda founded Toyoda Automatic Looms Systems Ltd. a manufacturing company which a few years later added a motor car division and then in time grew to become the multi-national giant that we know as Toyota Motor Corporation. An organisation that has been both greatly admired for its approach to automation, processes and corporate culture and widely imitated too. 

The “Five Whys” technique involves asking why something has happened as many times as it takes to get to a root cause of an event. This might actually be more or less than five, but it in most cases five will give you a good indication of what you are looking for. The key to the technique is not necessarily accepting face-value replies and looking for deeper explanations.

Let’s look at a simple made-up example from a construction industry scenario, that nevertheless shows multiple causes:

  1. Boss: Why were you unable to complete your team’s assignment on that worksite today? 

Team Supervisor: We were missing a critical piece of equipment so we couldn’t finish.

2. Boss: Why were you missing that critical piece of equipment?

Team Supervisor: I didn’t check the inventory in the truck before we left for the job, so it’s ultimately my fault but the guys in the warehouse didn’t pack it either.

3.  Boss: Why was this piece of equipment not packed yesterday?

Warehouse Manager: Sorry that was our fault, but we just missed it. I don’t know what more to say.

4. Boss: Why do you think you “just missed it”?

Warehouse Manager: Well to be honest we were actually far more busy than normal this week. We were already close to capacity and and we are down a couple of experienced team members too due to holidays, so some of the juniors had to step up and cover. It was probably one of them that missed it, but it’s still my responsibility. 

5. Boss: Why was the warehouse more busy than normal this week?

Operations Manager: Yeah, well we’ve made a sales push recently and we’ve had more business come in than we expected from it. So perhaps this is an indication that the support teams are not quite ready for this volume of work. Perhaps we could have made sure there was coverage for key staff too.

You can see from this example that as the question is followed through the different levels in the company it is revealing different issues, but the root causes ultimately appears to be that assigned task was not carried out as a symptom of structural pressure coming from the sales drive which has not been coordinated with an operations team which was already working at capacity. If nothing is done to resolve these root causes it is highly likely that similar problems will continue to occur.  

It’s also true that a senior manager could continue to ask why there was a sales drive at this time, and there may be other strategic reasons for example shareholder pressure to increase revenue or market share, but at this operational or tactical level the root cause seems to have been found. 

The 5 Whys is simple technique to implement which is one of the reasons that it is so powerful, but although it is very easy to ask someone why something has happened, there is a need to be careful of both people trying to dodge responsibility and also, as in this case, accept responsibility too early as in both cases this can lead to the process not being as effective as it could be. In our example for instance the questions could have stopped after the second why, when the Team Supervisor accepted responsibility. So this technique is likely to be most effective when there is a an organization culture where people are used to being able to speak openly and are not made to feel in fear of their jobs by answering truthfully.

Using the 5 Whys in Your Life Away from Work

If you can be honest with yourself about your answers without also being unnecessarily critical then the 5 Whys can be used effectively in your life outside of work too. e.g.

  • why am I not going to the gym as much as I used to?
  • why did I miss my bus this morning?
  • why am I not feeling happy living in this city?
  • why are not getting on as much as we used to?
  • why am I not able to focus on my studies?
  • why am I spending so much unproductive time online?

The technique does is not going to work if you shut the process down too early and just tell yourself that for example you are not going to the gym because you are just lazy and all your own fault, but instead by exploring why you feel tired and why you feel you don’t have energy or time you are likely to get some better results. 

Also as with any other types of technique that require deeper introspection if you find yourself or think you might start to uncover difficult emotional issues or you have an existing mental health condition that a exacerbates self-criticism please take care when you use it too. In this case it might be better to try the technique with a trusted friend, counsellor or other appropriate professional rather than just on your own. It’s intended to find answers that will lead to constructive solutions not to reinforce existing personal or psychological pressures.

But just like it did for the founder of Toyota, using the 5 Whys both at work and in a practical way in life in general can be a simple way for you to do some root cause analysis, with the benefit that even when it doesn’t work completely it will still give you some ideas and areas to explore more.

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