The What, When, and Why of 'The 5 Whys'

Question mark - the 5 whys Weekdone blog

The 5 whys is an invaluable tool for team leaders. What do you do when you run into a challenge at work? How do you get to the root of what’s causing shipping delays or contributing to confusion about a new product launch?

If you don’t have a clear problem-solving system in place, you may end up wasting a lot of time and resources trying to get to the bottom of these challenges. This is where a system like the 5 Whys comes in handy.

In this article, we cover:

What are the 5 whys?

How to problem solve at work using the 5 whys

3 example problems – the 5 whys in action

Benefits of using the 5 whys problem-solving framework

What Are "The 5 Whys"?

The 5 whys (sometimes known as the 5 Ys) is a problem analysis framework created by Sakichi Toyoda. Toyoda was a Japanese inventor and father of Kiichiro Toyoda, who founded the Toyota Motor Corporation.

The 5 whys is also an essential part of the Lean Problem Solving philosophy and the Total Quality Management problem-solving process.

The reasoning behind the 5 why approach is quite simple — after a person asks “why” 5 times, they will get to the root of the problem and figure out what caused it.

Taiichi Ohno – former architect for Toyota & author of Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production,”

The 5 Whys framework starts by defining the problem. Then, you’ll ask yourself and your team why that problem is happening. Once you identify one reason, you’ll follow up and ask “why is that?” 4 more times, digging deeper into the issue with each “why?”

When you reach the end of the line of questioning, you’ll land on the real cause of the problem. You will also likely find that it’s completely different than what you originally thought.

After you’ve figured out the very bottom line cause, you can work to fix it and prevent the problem from repeating itself in the future — or at least minimize the frequency with which it happens.

How to Problem Solve at Work Using The 5 Whys

You can use this framework to handle all kinds of problem scenarios your team might be facing. It also combines well with other problem-solving strategies — like the PPP (Progress, Plans, Problems) Methodology for status reporting.

To use the 5 whys effectively in your team meetings, follow these steps:

  1. Define your leader: Assemble a team of representatives from different departments, if possible, to receive more unique points of view and gain more insights into the true root cause of the problem — appoint a team leader to guide the entire 5 whys process, too.
  2. Define the problem: Discuss the problem and come up with a clear problem statement describing the issue you’re facing.
  3. Ask “why?” 5 times (or as many times as it takes to get to the root cause): The previously appointed team leader should ask why the problem is happening and keep the team focused during each response — they should encourage team members to respond with factual, data-based answers instead of those driven by emotions.
  4. Address root causes: After asking “why?” 5 times (or more), the team should work together to address the root cause and prevent the problem from happening again.
  5. Monitor effectiveness: Over time, the team leader and team should keep track of their solutions to ensure they’re working properly to eliminate or minimize the original problem — they may need to go back to the drawing board and repeat the 5 why process to fine-tune their response.
  6. Combine with other approaches: Combining the 5 whys with the PPP Methodology, for example, can help you to identify problems more easily and create a clear plan for addressing them.

The 5 Whys in Action

Here are 3 examples to help you better answer questions like “What is the 5 why problem analysis?” and “How can I solve problems using the 5 whys?”:

Problem Example 1: The team went over budget on a project.

Why 1: Why did we go over budget on this project?

  • It took longer to complete than we anticipated.

Why 2: Why did it take longer than anticipated?

  • We had to redesign multiple elements of the product.

Why 3: Why did we have to redesign multiple elements?

  • The features of the product were confusing and hard to use.

Why 4: Why were the features confusing and hard to use?

  • We made incorrect assumptions about the users’ needs and wants.

Why 5: Why did we make incorrect assumptions?

  • Our user experience research team didn’t ask sufficient questions.

Root Cause: The user experience research team asked insufficient and ineffective questions.

Possible Solution: Create a more detailed user experience questionnaire for future research processes.

Problem Example 2: The client is refusing to make their payment.

Why 1: Why did the client refuse to make their payment?

  • The project was completed late.

Why 2: Why was the project completed late?

  • It took longer than we estimated.

Why 3: Why did it take longer than estimated?

  • We couldn’t get enough materials to complete it.

Why 4: Why couldn’t we get enough materials?

  • We didn’t place the order on time.

Why 5: Why didn’t we place the order on time?

  • We didn’t closely analyze the work schedule.

Root Cause: The team didn’t analyze the work schedule closely before starting the project.

Possible Solution: Review the work schedule more carefully before starting projects to create more accurate estimates and timelines.

Problem Example 3: Customers are unhappy because the product received doesn't match the specifications they were promised.

Why 1: Why are customers receiving products that don’t meet the expected specifications?

  • The manufacturing team built the products to a different specification than what the customer and salesperson agreed upon.

Why 2: Why did the manufacturing team build the products to a different specification?

  • The salesperson expedited the process by calling the head of manufacturing directly, and the wrong specifications were communicated or written down.

Why 3: Why did the salesperson call the head of manufacturing instead of following the company’s established protocol?

  • The protocol requires approval from the sales director, which slows down or stops the manufacturing process.

Why 4: Why does the protocol require approval from the sales director?

  • The sales director requires continuous updates for discussions with the CEO.

Root Cause: A non-value added signature is contributing to a process breakdown.

Possible Solution: Remove signature requirement from protocol; create and implement a different process for keeping the sales director informed.

Notice that this problem only required asking 4 whys to get to the bottom of the issue. Sometimes, 5 Whys aren’t necessary. In other cases, more than 5 Whys are required to identify the root cause. Take it by a case-by-case basis!

Benefits of Using The 5 Whys

The 5 Whys problem analysis offers tons of benefits to your team, including the following:

Encourages honesty, trust, and accountability

Asking "why?" 5 times encourages honesty among team members, as there is a structure behind it – you can work toward getting to the bottom of things quicker by being honest with yourself, your team, and possible shortcomings. It creates a sense of accountability without assigning blame to one individual.

This system encourages everyone to be forthcoming about their actions or inactions — how they may have contributed to a specific problem. When everyone is honest and takes accountability, all team members can trust one another more easily.

Allows for deeper team connections

Trust, honesty, and accountability all help to foster deeper connections between team members.

Deeper team connections can lead to increased engagement, improved workplace morale, and better productivity. All of these outcomes help the team to perform better, too, and boost the company’s bottom line.

Provides structure for faster problem-solving

When you and your team make it a habit to utilize the 5 whys whenever you run into a problem, you’ll find that you can solve problems faster and more easily.

You’ll have an agreed-upon structure and protocol in place. This allows you to get down to business quickly and identify the root cause sooner. You may notice a problem, ask yourself the 5 whys, and then propose a meeting about a solution to the root cause without needing the conversation!

Encourages continuous improvement

The 5 whys encourages continuous improvement among all team members and at all levels of the organization.

This approach eliminates finger-pointing and assigning blame. Instead, it allows everyone to get to the cause of the issue and encourages them to work together to prevent the problem from happening again.

Final Thoughts on The 5 Whys

This problem-solving framework is an incredible process that all team leaders can (and should) implement.

  • Asking “why” 5 times helps your team to get to the root of its problems
  • This strategy can be used for a wide range of problem scenarios
  • It combines easily with other problem-solving tactics, like the PPP methodology
  • It encourages deeper team connections, provides a structure for easier problem-solving, and encourages continuous engagement from all team members

For more help using the 5 whys with your team, check out Weekdone Team Compass today.

Weekdone Team Compass uses the PPP status reporting methodology to help identify problems through transparent team updates. It's a collaborative team management software for facilitating weekly check-ins, scheduling 1:1 meetings, automated reporting, and effective feedback on a weekly basis!