5 whys

The 5 whys is a robust tool for analyzing the root cause of problems in 6-sigma. 6-sigma is a management concept used to spot and remove wasteful practices which enables an organization to use minimal resources to actualize maximum yield. This implies that in 6-sigma, activities that do not add value to the entire process are removed, while the value-adding activities are enhanced to ensure good quality and customers are satisfied. 6-sigma has a well-defined quality improvement methodology known as DMAIC which is an acronymn for define, measure, analyze, improve and control. The 5 whys belong to the analyze phase of DMAIC.(Hank 2019, pp. 1-3)

The idea of 6-sigma gives us a better understanding of the importance of 5 whys as an analytic tool. Problems occur at various points in our day to day running of businesses, but it is known that problems are only symptoms of underlying causes. We could decide to give the problem a quick fix so that we get on with our activities. Unfortunately the quick fix is only temporal as the underlying causes of the problem remains hence a reoccurrence is almost inevitable. The 5 whys is a tool used to peel layers and layers of a problem until the root cause is found. The root cause is discovered by asking why five times. Doing this helps unveil the root cause of the problem and identifies all the layers leading to this root cause. It therefore makes it easy to avoid and mitigate against a further reoccurrence. The 5 why is a unique tool in the sense that it is simple to use, helps show the relationship among the various root causes of a problem and it is an easy analytic method that does not require statistical analysis. The most striking benefit of the 5 whys is its wide range of use that spreads beyond lean management.(Eric 2011, p.233)

Origin Of The 5 Whys

The 5 whys was originally invented in the 1930s by Sakichi Toyoda; a Japanese Inventor who eventually became the founder of Toyota industries. This 5 whys method was adopted by Toyota during the innovation of its manufacturing methodologies and is still in use in the corporation till date. The 5 whys till date has become popular in 6-sigma, lean manufacturing and has evolved as a simple tool you can pretty much use to solve everyday problems.(Eric 2011, p.230)

How To Use The 5 Whys

The 5 whys thrives in an environment of mutual trust and understanding. In the absence of these virtues, the simple tool could become a huge mass of complexity leading to blame games rather than arriving at the root cause of the problem. Hence sheer objectivity and unanimous agreement to a common cause; the identification of the root cause of a problem and proffering solutions to it must be heavily present.

As a result of the above it is always advised for users of the 5 whys approach to tolerate all the mistakes the first time, this helps them to keep a clear head and allows people to show compassion towards other people’s mistakes. It is also important to never allow the same mistake to be repeated and always know when to stop. Not knowing when to stop will prevent getting responses that are irrelevant to your aim.

In most cases where the 5 whys had been used it was discovered that the root causes were things least expected like human errors. Usually, so much emphasis is placed on processes and technology without paying proper cognizance to human factors. Hence it is important to be open-minded and brace up for any root causes that are uncovered, as this will help in tackling the problem objectively.

The following includes the steps to be taken to use the 5 whys (Matthew 2015, p.91):

  1. Create a team: This is usually the first step to take in this technique. Here you invite all the parties that are somewhat involved in the problem to the meeting and ensure that everyone is present as an absent person or group could easily become the fall guy to take the blames. The method is a team-oriented process and involves every brain involved to be on deck especially those familiar with the intricacies of the process.
  2. Identify the problem: Discuss the problem with the team and narrow it down to a clear specific problem. If the problem is not well-defined, lots of time will be wasted in talking about issues that may have little or no relevance to the subject matter. When the problem in action is identified make a problem statement and write it down or on a whiteboard. This alone prepares you to make the next move which is the first why?
  3. Ask the first why: Having defined the problem statement, you then ask the first why. Here you ensure that the responses are concise, straight to the point, devoid of emotional nuances, and are factual. This helps reduce cases of hypotheses, theories and vague answers. Whoever is leading the brainstorming session must ensure every response is narrowed down to the problem in action. While doing this, ensure that the generally accepted answers are written down.
  4. Ask why subsequently until no there are no further answers: Now frame the next why as questions targeted to the previous answer you have gotten from the first why. Keep asking many whys in succession until you can all unanimously agree that the root causes have been thoroughly identified and it is of no use to proceed. Again, it is always important to know when to stop. This approach must not compulsorily have five whys, it could be more or less as the case requires. Ensure that every answer is well documented and filtered to address the problem in action. It is also possible to have more than one root causes hence making the 5 whys to appear in a matrix form. This should be allowed if it happens as it can help take care of organizational or hierarchical issues that consistently affect the output of the organization.
  5. Swing into action: Getting to this stage means you are one step away from fixing the problem. This shows that you have been able to identify one or more root cause of the problem. Of course, all ideas without execution is just pretty a waste of time hence it becomes a necessity to take actions immediately. Collectively agree on countermeasures to tackle the root cause. Everybody must bring up solutions to this root cause so that the problem does not become recurrent. Delegate duties to parties and ensure proper follow up is done on the countermeasures collectively agreed upon. In the end, you will realize that the root cause is either minimized or stopped entirely and the collective aim of the 5 whys has been achieved.

Having taken the above-mentioned steps, one will realize that the root cause has been identified, countermeasures put in place and the problem solved. It is usually advisable to hold another meeting of the same kind after some time to evaluate the effects of the solutions proffered. If it wasn’t as effective as it should be then you go over the process again. On the other hand, if the solutions are effective, it is properly documented and sent across different units of the organization so that they can glean a few things from it and apply it should similar incidents arise in the future. From the above, it is now clear to understand the 5 whys is globally recognized as a simple but powerful tool that will always have relevance not just in management but also in our everyday lives.


  • Alan J., The problem with 5 whys, BMJ Quality & Safety, 2017;26(8):671-677
  • Eric R., (2011), The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses Crown Business.
  • Hank M., 5 Whys to Solve Problems, itSM Solutions,2019;Vol.5.(39):1-3.
  • Matthew B., (2015), Root Cause Analysis: A Step-By-Step Guide to Using the Right Tool at the Right Time. CRC Press.