The 5 Whys: Root Cause Analysis

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Have you had a problem that keeps coming back or seems resistant to being fixed? Chances are, you are trying to solve the wrong problem and could use a root cause analysis technique called the 5 Whys.  

If we knew everything that could possibly go wrong, life would be so much easier! We all have to deal with the unexpected and the unpredictable. The more you explore problems, you will find they are just a symptom of a bigger issue.

The 5 Whys tool is effective and easy to use. You can use this on personal issues as well as workplace problems. It is a great tool that will help you find the root cause of any problem and eliminate having to circle back around that issue over and over again.

The Roots of 5W

The 5 Why is part of the Lean system and originated as part of the Toyota Production System (TPS). The basis of the TPS was to understand work, based on practical experiences from people closest to the problem, to define the right problem and then to find the solution.

The 5 why is a technique where one asks five times, clarifying the problem and the solution.

How to Apply 5 Whys

When applying the 5 Whys technique, you simply ask why until you get to the root cause. This could be mean asking why three times and it could be seven. Most of the time, you will get to the root cause in about 5 rounds of questions.

As you follow the questioning, you may be surprised to learn the root cause is not what you expected. Often, the issues can be policy related, due to assumptions, process issues and or “work arounds” that have continued to be part of the workflow.

When you use this technique, and train your team to use this technique, you avoid solving the wrong problem and spinning your wheels.


Let’s explore a problem and see how it works.

Problem – We didn’t send the medication to the unit in time.

1.) Why didn’t we send the medication on time?  The orders where not processed when they came in.

2.) Why were the orders not processed when they came in? Because the pharmacists were still working on the morning orders.

3.) Why were the pharmacist still working on the morning orders? One of the new pharmacists was new and did not know the system.

4.) Why was the new pharmacist unfamiliar with all procedures? He was not trained properly.

5.) Why was he not trained properly? Because we needed someone to fill in immediately and his training was cut short.

The root cause ended up being something no one had thought about. This process helps you recognize how interrelated parts of the workflow process are and when you compromise in one area of performance, it will impact other areas. too often, people end up playing a game of whack-a-mole trying to plug the leaks in the process.

The 5 Why analysis digs deeper into a problem until the real cause shows up. Remember that asking “Why” five times is a suggestion, ask “Why” as many times as you need to get to the root cause. This may end up being three times or seven times.

3 Steps to Get Started

The 5 Whys technique is a simple and easy to way to start a continuous improvement culture at the front line of your organization. This is where problems should be solved because this is where the people are that know the most about the process.

Follow these three steps:

  1. Assemble a team

Bring people together from different departments making sure each one is familiar with the process that is going to be investigated. In this way you guarantee unique points of view.

Because the solution needs to be executed by the team, the team needs to be part of finding the root cause.

  1. Make a Clear Problem Statement

Once the team comes together, the first order of business is to discuss the problem. Define the scope of the issue and construct a clear problem statement. The technique is best with moderately difficult problems and it should have a medium scope. If the problem is too big and complex, you will have to use another problem-solving approach. This technique is good for problems that can be discussed and solved in one or two meetings.

  1. Ask Why

Identify a facilitator and a scribe; the facilitator asks the questions, and the scribe takes notes. You can use a whiteboard or flipchart, but I recommend also taking notes. Keep the group focused on objective facts and data vs emotions and opinions.

The facilitator will ask “Why” as many times as needed until the group gets to the root cause. This becomes obvious as you go through the exercise.


Stop when you get to a reasonable end. If you continue to ask “Why” you may end up with extraneous complaints that will only distract you from a solution. This is not an opportunity to complain and tear down a process.

In the event you end up with more than one root cause, you may identify a bigger issue in the organization. Use this information and engage another lean sigma process to solve the problem.

Take Action

After your group identifies the root cause, you have to take action. Finding the solution might be done in the same meeting, or you may decide to come back together and find a solution that will keep you from recurring problems.

When you decide on a course of action, you want to identify owners and responsibility for the corrective action, along with the control process to ensure it sticks.

Review and Revise

You will want to meet after a period of time and evaluate the impact of this action. Is it working? Were other issues highlighted? If so, the process should be repeated.

Document and Celebrate

Once you complete the final review, document the process, and showcase it as part of your team celebration. Sharing this information will motivate others and provide an overview of the types of problems teams face along with a roadmap of how those problems can be eliminated.

Use this to build on the continuous improvement culture that raises the standards of performance.

The 5 Whys technique is simple and effective for solving problems. Use this with your workforce to find the root cause of problems and empower your people to solve problems and make work better.

Would you like to learn more tools and strategies to solve problems, be more productive and manage stress? Check out the Work Smart Club. Click on the image for details.

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Dr. Cynthia Howard

Executive Coach  Performance Consultant  LSSBB

It takes resilience and agility to stay focused in these disruptive times. We want to help you get ahead of the challenges in this digital age with short practical tips. Go forward. Be your best

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