It’s an exciting time to be alive. We have answers to conceivably any question, and they all can be accessed in a manner of seconds from a device no larger than our hand.
And yet, despite endless resources, even the best plans go awry—problems still exist that baffle even the strongest of teams. In the instances when an unexpected difficulty has arisen, it’s difficult to locate the root of the problem.
Luckily, there’s a solid technique for locating the origin of any difficulty, and it’s called The 5 Whys. The 5 Whys analysis is a proven technique used by some of the world’s largest companies, and all it requires is a bit of thought (and potentially a Lucidchart template).
The beginning of the 5 Whys
The 5 Whys analysis was developed by Taiichi Ohno, the pioneer of the Toyota Production System in the 1950s. He details his method of problem solving in his book, Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production. The technique Ohno developed was so effective that Toyota uses it to this day. Ohno saw a problem not as a negative, but, in fact, as an opportunity in disguise.
When approaching a problem in this manner, it becomes an investigative journey and not a barrier. It’s a way to find hope in circumstances that seem dire, overwhelming, or even hopeless. Here’s an example of a time Ohno used the 5 Whys to discover the reason for a robot stopping on the assembly room floor, courtesy of Toyota’s blog:
- "Why did the robot stop?" The circuit has overloaded, causing a fuse to blow.
- "Why is the circuit overloaded?" There was insufficient lubrication on the bearings, so they locked up.
- "Why was there insufficient lubrication on the bearings?" The oil pump on the robot is not circulating sufficient oil.
- "Why is the pump not circulating sufficient oil?" The pump intake is clogged with metal shavings.
- "Why is the intake clogged with metal shavings?" Because there is no filter on the pump.
As you can see in this example, the 5 Whys helped Ohno reach the root cause of the issue: The team needed to add a filter to the oil pump on the robot. You can use the same process to reach the root cause and implement lasting change.
When to use the 5 Whys
The 5 Whys can be used for most problems, but it’s most effective for simple to semi-difficult problems. If you’re attempting to solve for complicated difficulties, you’ll find that the root causes split into “tracks” of inquiry that have their own root causes.
In other words, don’t try to solve the reasons for global poverty by asking five questions—it’s much too complex an issue.
Instead, whittle larger problems into smaller ones and solve the root causes of those problems. Use the 5 Whys for manufacturing problems, product release problems, team issues, or organizational problems.
If you’re unsure of whether the 5 Whys is appropriate for the type of difficulty you’re experiencing, it’s not unwise to try it. If the root causes for each “why” split into their own tracks of inquiry, you may be looking at a problem that is more difficult and, therefore, not well-suited to 5 Why analysis. In this case, it might be worth switching to a cause-and-effect analysis.
What are the 5 Whys?
Every journey is comprised of steps—at its core, the 5 Why analysis is made of five steps that involve asking “Why?” five times (however, we recommend adding two additional steps, covered in the next section). This process will enable you to discover the root cause of a problem.
Use Lucidchart to visualize the 5 Whys and keep track of the root causes throughout the investigative process. Our 5 Why diagram can be used again and again to solve whatever small- to medium-sized problems you may experience.
How to use the 5 Whys
Though the core of 5 Why problem solving is only asking five questions, we recommend a few additional steps to bring the brainpower of your team members together and take action on the root causes you find. Use the following method for our 5 Why approach:
1. Gather your team
It’s true that the 5 Whys can be used to solve even everyday problems, but you’ll most likely use the 5 Whys in a business setting, so assemble together everyone who is immediately affected by the problem. We’re not talking an all-hands meeting: Just include those who care most about the solution and can help brainstorm.
2. Define the issue
This step may be easier said than done: sometimes it’s hard to narrow down exactly what the main problem is. Once you’ve determined the problem, write it down in a one-sentence statement that your team agrees on. Put this sentence in the white bubble at the top of the template.
3. Ask “Why?”
This is where it gets tricky. With your team’s help, ask what’s causing the main problem. These questions need to address concrete problems, not just theories. If you use the Lucidchart template, write this first question in the left-most blue circle.
4. Ask “Why?” four more times
Following the template above in the single lane on the left, ask “why” for each answer. Here’s an example of what that could look like:
Problem: The website wasn’t launched in time.
The developers didn’t have the content they needed.
The copywriter didn’t provide the content.
The copywriter was waiting on approval from the VP of marketing.
The VP of marketing forgot to approve the content.
He was on a business trip.
Solution: A possible solution could be authorizing someone else to approve content or directing the VP of marketing to set aside time for content approval.
5. Stop at a good solution
In some instances, your team may need to keep asking more “whys.” Sometimes you may need to split into more root causes. But knowing when to stop is a valuable part of the process; otherwise, you’ll find yourself lost and without fixable root causes.
6. Fix the root cause of the problem
Once you know what the root cause of the problem, you can implement solutions to those root causes. Discuss with your team the best solutions and decide how to proceed.
7. See how it works!
After you’ve implemented your solutions to the root causes, see how it works. Sometimes it’s perfect, and you’ve solved a major problem. Other times, you may need to tweak your “whys” and their causes. In those instances, just rework the whys, find the root causes, and identify more solutions. The solutions should be targeted and measured and should directly impact the root causes of the whys.
The beauty of the 5 Why process isn’t that it’s perfect: It’s that it gives you a method to rationally find solutions to baffling problems. It’s a way to find calm in a storm of issues. And, frankly, if it worked for Toyota and for a host of other massive companies, it’s likely the right path for your team.
But the 5 whys process isn’t just for business settings. It’s also useful for solving challenges in your everyday life.
From pinpointing the root cause of sadness to finding out why your kid is failing at math, asking “Why?” helps identify the root causes of different kinds of issues. After some practice, you may find yourself routinely incorporating this analysis and discovering solutions in a more holistic manner.