Root Cause Analysis

In simple words, an underlying cause of the problem is referred to as the root cause and the process of finding out the root cause of a problem or an adverse event is known as root cause analysis.

Some problems are so rigid and tenacious that they won’t go away that easily and may occur time and again. For such issues root cause analysis is necessary to solve the complications by eliminating the actual root cause of the problem.

Organizations usually find a comfortable way to solve a problem quickly but they do not fully eliminate it if they never get to the root of the issue. This leads to wastage of time and resources whereas the problem still lies beneath. That is why root cause analysis is important in this regard.

Five Whys Method

For root cause analysis, five whys method is considered by many to be the best option. This method shuck away all the layers of the problem while digging down on to the root cause. Five whys method is all about asking why five times but you may need to ask less or more than 5 times depending upon the complexity of the problem.

Usually using this method in the root cause analysis involves the answers to be clear and succinct but not that simple that they bypass the important information. The answers should be such that answer to one “why” instantly arise another “why” and so on.

Benefits of the Five Whys Method

  • Simple and efficient problem solving.
  • Easy to you by most people.
  • Identifies the true root cause.
  • Helps to prevent the long term consequences of an unsolved problem.

How to Use the Five Whys Method

You must be wondering how the root cause of a problem can be identified by just asking why five times. Let’s try to illustrate it with an example. For example, Customer refused to pay because they are unhappy with the product.

  1. Why are the customers not paying for the product?
    • Because they are not satisfied with the final brochure.
  2. Why?
    • Because the product is not according to the requirements they specified.
  3. Why?
    • Because they demanded blue background and we replaced it with grey background which they did not like.
  4. Why?
    • Because we ran out of blue ink.
  5. Why?
    • Because our inventory control manager forgot to order ink.

So in this example the negligence of the inventory control manager was the root cause from the looks of it. If you were to go one level further with the why, it would properly become clear that is due there is no system in place to order new ink when stock levels are low.

Now in order to solve the issue above you would need to implement a system that trigger an order of material when they get to a certain level. The quick solution many would wrongly take is only to order new paint and produce the order, as the issue would occur again next time the ink runs out.

The Process Steps of Five Whys

Five Whys is a simple process that involves the following steps:

  1. Form a team: First of all, gather all the affected people who are well aware of the details of the problem and the process that needs to be fixed.
  2. Select a Team facilitator: Next step is to select a team facilitator who can investigate and supervise the team in the identification process.
  3. Write down the problem: Write down the simple and concise problem statement after discussing with the team members. Like in the above example the problem statement is: “Customer refused to pay because they are unhappy with the product.”
  4. Ask Why 5 times: Ask the first why that why this problem happened? The answers should be based on facts and logics, not on guesses. This requires deep thinking into the matter and potentially data analysis to find out the logical reasons. Note down all the answers by the team members on side of the respective why in pithy and concise phrases rather than full sentences.
  5. Find and discuss the root cause: If you do not find a logical answer to a why, that means you have reached the root cause and then address it to the team members and take their opinions and consent.
  6. Counter Measures: Find out all the corrective measures that can be taken to overcome the underlying root cause and discuss with the team members.

Five whys method can easily be conducted for simple problems. However, for complex and critical problems it needs to be handled carefully. For such complex cases a Fishbone Diagram may be required prior to the 5 whys, as it helps to analyze the problem through a broader perspective.