The first and most prevalent tool for defining the root cause of problems is the 5 Whys (or Five Whys, or 5Y). This method is especially popular in manufacturing, where the main concern is often productivity and efficiency — maximizing production rate and minimizing rejects and downtime. Many Six Sigma and Lean practitioners talk about this as one of their most rudimentary tools. It’s easy to remember, simple to apply, and gets deeper than traditional problem solving techniques.

Asking “Why?” may be a favorite technique of your three year old child in driving you crazy, but it could also teach you a valuable lesson. The 5 Whys is a tool used in the analysis phase of the DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) methodology. It is a great tool that does not involve data segmentation, hypothesis testing, regression or other advanced statistical tools, and in many cases can be completed without a data collection plan.

By repeatedly asking the question “Why” (five is a good rule of thumb), you can peel away the layers of symptoms which can lead to the root cause of a problem. Very often the ostensible reason for a problem will lead you to another question. Although this technique is called “5 Whys,” you may find that you will need to ask the question fewer or more times than five before you find the issue related to a problem.

Benefits of the 5 Whys
• Help identify the root cause of a problem.
• Determine the relationship between different root causes of a problem.
• One of the simplest tools; easy to complete without statistical analysis.

When Is 5 Whys Most Useful?
• When problems involve human factors or machine interactions.
• In day-to-day business life; can be used within or without a larger quality program or project.

How to Complete the 5 Whys
1. Write down the specific problem. Writing the issue helps you formalize the problem and describe it completely. It also helps a team focus on the same problem.
2. Ask Why the problem happens and write the answer down below the problem.
3. If the answer you just provided doesn’t identify the root cause of the problem that you wrote down in Step 1, ask Why again and write that answer down.
4. Loop back to step 3 until the team is in agreement that the problem’s root cause is identified. Again, this may take fewer or more times than 5 Whys.

5 Whys Example
Problem Statement: Customers are unhappy because they are being shipped products that don’t meet their specifications.

1. Why are customers being shipped bad products?
– Because manufacturing built the products to a specification that is different from what the customer and the sales person agreed to.

2. Why did manufacturing build the products to a different specification than that of sales?
– Because the sales person expedites work on the shop floor by calling the head of manufacturing directly to begin work. An error happened when the specifications were being communicated or written down.

3. Why does the sales person call the head of manufacturing directly to start work instead of following the procedure established in the company?
– Because the “start work” form requires the sales director’s approval before work can begin and slows the manufacturing process (or stops it when the director is out of the office).

4. Why does the form contain an approval for the sales director?
– Because the sales director needs to be continually updated on sales for discussions with the CEO.
In this case only four Whys were required to find out that a non-value added signature authority is helping to cause a process breakdown.

5 Whys and the next tool: Fishbone (Ishikawa) Diagram
The 5 Whys can be used individually or as a part of the fishbone (also known as the cause and effect or Ishikawa) diagram. The fishbone diagram helps you explore all potential or real causes that result in a single defect or failure. Once all inputs are established on the fishbone, you can use the 5 Whys technique to drill down to the root causes.
In our next blog on Root Cause Analysis we will delve into how to utilize and develop these diagrams.