Exploring Cause-and-Effect with 5 Whys


In our everyday lives, we encounter many problems and unfavorable situations. One way go about this, is to find a way to overcome the situation. Usually by dealing with the momentary consequences, and moving on, rather than actually understanding the cause behind the problem. Therefore, identifying why it occurred and how to permanently resolve it.

Keep Asking “Why”

You know how 3-year-olds keep asking “why” all the time, and it sometimes they do that only to drive you crazy? Well, the truth is they are only trying to make sense of things.

Similarly enough, when faced with an issue, the best way to get to the bottom of things is to keep asking “why”. By repeatedly asking “why”, you can slowly dig deeper and unearth the cause of the problem that’s hiding under all the visible symptoms. Very often, the most obvious reason for a problem will only lead you to another question.

This is the Five Whys tool. A technique that helps you get to the root cause of a problem. And contributes to finding the best solution. This elementary approach to problem-solving stimulates deep thinking through questioning. It can be applied and adapted easily and quickly to almost any problem.

In fact, the Five Whys technique is related to the principles of systematic problem-solving. The three key elements of effective use of Five Whys are:

  1. accurate and complete description of problems
  2. complete honesty when answering the questions
  3. determination to get to the root cause of the problems and resolve them for good

The name of this tool suggests you should ask “why” five times. But in reality, you may find that you will need to ask the question (and answer it) fewer or more times before you find the real reason for the problem.

Brief History of Five Whys

The 5 Whys tool was developed by Sakichi Toyoda, a Japanese inventor and founder of Toyota industries. He created the technique in the 1930s. It was first applied in Toyota. And is still actively used today in finding the root cause of a problem. But more importantly, to prevent it from happening again. The Five Whys is a lean method and is more efficient than traditional tools because it can be used to investigate one or more problems simultaneously and because it solves more the final outcome.

How to Use Five Whys

Applying the 5 Whys to perform root cause analysis requires following a simple process to ensure you stay on track. Using the Five Whys includes the following steps:

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Step 1: Form the Team

The first step for using the Five Whys tool is to bring together a cross-functional team. Using Five Whys is not a one-person job.  That’s why the team should include representatives of all departments related to the project/problem, along with stakeholders. Each team member will bring their own perspective of the problem and may ask important questions that otherwise may not have been asked. Additionally, the team should appoint a facilitator that will lead the discussion and make sure the team stays on track.

Step 3: Ask “Why”

Now that you have the problem in front of you, the team lead or facilitator should start asking the Why-questions. The questions should be aimed at understanding why the problem occurred. Think of it as a brainstorming session where you ask questions. Then, write down the answers that come to mind. Keep asking “Why” till you identify the main source of the problem. When you have more questions that are related to the same issue, try to group them together. Also, keep in mind that sometimes, there will be more than one cause for the problem, so repeat the process as many times as you need to.

Step 2: Define the Problem

In order to perform a successful root cause analysis, the team needs to clearly define the problem. Develop an accurate and concise problem statement and write it down. But make sure you focus on the problem(s) related to the process, and not on the personnel. The team should also determine the scope of the problem they will address.

If the problem scope is too narrow, the team may identify only small improvements. But if they define a very broad scope, resolving the problem may require a solution that takes a lot of time. Or even worse, it may be unfit in the corporate culture or not match the corporate strategy. And as a result, never be implemented. That’s why taking the time to define the problem and its scope is crucial. It saves time and makes finding a solution easier.

Step 4: Discuss Results and Determine Corrective Actions

The Five Whys approach can take one or multiple directions when there is more than one cause. So upon determining the root cause(s), discuss the possible corrective actions to address each root cause. Just like you brainstormed the “Whys” you can now brainstorm the “hows” to come up with resolutions and develop action plans to implement the solutions. Keep going till you find a solution that resolves that root cause. And preferably, prevents the problem from happening again.

You can take the Five Whys one step further, and assign owners to each corrective action, and see a due date. Schedule regular meetings for the team to receive updates on the progress until all actions are completed. Then, set up a way to monitor and measure the effectiveness of the actions.

Benefits of Using Five Whys

The main goal of using Five Whys is to determine the root cause of a problem. But there are other advantages that come with the use of this tool. First, the Five Whys is an easy to use tool that doesn’t require any statistical analysis, so teams can earn how to use quickly and efficiently, and even use it during meetings.

It is a very flexible and lean tool that can help you analyze both simple and complex problems. Also, you can easily combine it with other analysis tools, like the cause-effect diagram, to get a more accurate outcome and verify findings and ensure they are the real root causes. Plus, as you continuously keep asking question, you can determine the relationship between the roots of a problem and different causes.

Conclusion

The Five Whys or 5 Whys, is one of the root cause analysis tools that you can use to efficiently resolve problems by digging into the root causes of the problem. The lean nature of the tool makes it easy to implement in almost any situation, and very handy during stakeholder meetings.  There’s no doubt this tool is very effective, but whether you use it on your own, or in combination with other tools, it’s up to you.

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About the Author: Ivana Sarandeska

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Ivana Sarandeska is a digital marketer, creative writer and master procrastinator. An Agile enthusiast and a firm believer that thorough planning is key to good execution and even better improvisation. She has a soft spot for technology, so most of her full-time jobs were in IT companies where she was introduced to Agile and Scrum. After she got her Scrum Basics certification she started actively using these methodologies and their main principles. Learning how to organize her time and tasks better has motivated her to dive deeper into these methodologies. Now, she is an avid advocate of Agile and Scrum and happily shares her knowledge and experience to fellow procrastinators.