The 5 whys of root cause analysis is a technique often used during problem solving procedure. It is based on asking “why?” 5 times in continuous order to find the root cause of problem.  By asking why a problem occurred each time, the answer then turns into the premises of next question, forcing it to go deeper and deeper into the real cause of problem.

This decision-making technique is applied to examine the cause and effect relationships that are hidden behind a particular problem. Rather than directly coming up with a solution that only is able to address a certain symptom, the 5 whys of root cause analysis targets the countermeasures that intent to prevent the problem from reoccurring.

Example of the 5 whys of Root Cause Analysis

Here is an example of using a 5 whys technique to sort out the cause of the below problem:

  • A business running over the budget on recent project.

Question 1: “Why we ran over budget on the project?” Answer: It took longer time than expected to get it completed.

Question 2: “Why it took longer time than expected to get it completed?” Answer: We needed to reset numerous elements of the desired product.

Question 3: “Why is it required to reset elements of the desired product?” Answer: The features of the desired product were not able to be used.

Question 4: “Why were the features of desired products not able to be used?” Answer: Due to wrong assumptions about what buyers wanted.

Question 5: “Why was wrong assumptions made about what buyers wanted?” Answer: The project experience team did not ask the right questions to estimate what the customers wanted.

In above 5 whys example, it can be seen that the nature of the problem ended up being quite different in the last answer compared to the first question asked. Initially, people often blame a problem on something that’s not in their control, such as failure of any technology or unpredictable occurrence, but that fails to account for human actions and behaviors. E.g. identifying the root cause of business running over budget example. When you have the true root cause ‘The project experience team not asking the right questions’, then you can do something about it.

Process of Conducting 5 Whys Analysis

Create an experienced team

Gather experienced team members who must be well familiar with the process. The team gets setup and appoint someone as a team leader to take position of 5 whys Master. The Team lead will keep the entire team focused, leading the discussions taking place, and assign the responsibilities depending on countermeasures identified by group members.

Define the problem

The team must discuss the problem and define it concisely by using a problem statement. The team should make the problem statement as clear as possible because any statement that’s too complex could end up adding time to an analysis that goes outside the actual scope of the problem.

Ask “why” for 5 times

The assigned team will decide for the first “why” question to begin with, and then the 5 Why Master leads the team in organizing the sequence of questions. The answer to each question must be based on facts instead of disputable team member’s opinions. The number 5 is like a rule of thumb; however, it is possible that team may be required to ask more than 5 questions to find the root cause of the problem. The point is that team should end up with the root cause once it no longer come up with practical answers.

Take right action

Once the root cause of the problem is identified, the team should begin to discuss and prepare the list of actions or countermeasures in order to prevent similar problems from happening again. The team leader should then delegate each item from the list for team members to action.

Monitor and share results

It’s important to closely monitor how successful countermeasures are for preventing problems from reoccurrences. If they are found not to be effective, then it means proper root cause was not found and the process of 5 whys of root cause analysis should be repeated from the beginning. Finally, record the findings and circulate it thought the company. Everyone should know the root causes and countermeasures of the problem.