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5 Whys - The Ultimate Root Cause Analysis Tool

19th Feb, 2024
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    5 Whys - The Ultimate Root Cause Analysis Tool

    Any team or procedure could run into unforeseen issues. Problems, however, are merely signs of more serious problems. Quickly resolving a problem could be practical, but it won't shield your work process from persistent errors. For this reason, your team must concentrate on identifying the main problem and appropriately addressing it. 

    One of the most powerful root cause analysis methods in the Lean management toolbox is the five whys technique. Every team encounters an obstacle while working each day. However, by applying the 5 Whys, you can identify the source of any issue and shield the procedure from repeating errors and failures. If you want to increase your knowledge on this topic, you can find many courses in Agile Management Courses with placement.

    Origin of 5 Whys

    A component of the Toyota Production System is the five-why approach. The Japanese manufacturer and inventor Sakichi Toyoda created the technique and quickly integrated it into the Lean philosophy. "Whenever we encounter an issue, Toyota's scientific approach is to ask why five times. The essence of the issue and its resolution become evident by saying why five times. Ohno Taiichi making a well-informed decision is one of the essential elements for the technique's execution to be successful.

    This means that decisions should be based on a thorough knowledge of what is occurring on the shop floor. In other words, people with real-world experience should be a part of the root cause analysis process. They should be able to provide you with the most useful knowledge on any issue that arises in their field of expertise. There are many courses available in agile management courses with placement to do a deep dive. 

    What are the Five Whys?

    The 5 Whys approach entails repeatedly asking "Why" until you've eliminated all the symptoms of a problem and reached its underlying cause. The Analyze part of the DMAIC process and the Plan phase of PDCA activities both frequently employ the 5 Why technique. It can be used independently, but it is frequently used in conjunction with other analysis tools like the Fishbone Diagram (Cause-and-Effect) Diagram as given below.

    Why are 5 Whys the most successful when the responses originate from those who have first-hand knowledge of the procedure under investigation? You can get to the heart of the issue by asking "Why" repeatedly.

    5 Whys Analysis in Action 

    5 whys root cause analysis: When using the 5 Whys method, your goal is to identify the root of the issue before addressing it. The five whys may help you identify an unexpected problem source. Problems that are thought to be technological frequently turn out to be issues with people and processes. Therefore, identifying and removing the root cause is essential if you want to prevent failure iterations. 

    Here is an illustration of how to use the 5 Whys:

    The newsletter for the most recent software changes was delayed, which was a problem. 

    1. Why did the newsletter not go out on time? The implementation of updates waited until the deadline. 
    2. Why weren't the changes applied promptly? Because the additional features were still being developed. 
    3. What kept the designers from finishing the additional features? One of the new developers was unfamiliar with the protocols. 
    4. Why was the new developer ignorant of every step? He wasn't well trained. 
    5. Why wasn't he given sufficient instruction? Because CTO thinks new hires should learn as they go along rather than receiving extensive training. 

    You can see that the initial issue's fundamental cause was utterly unanticipated, contrary to what most people would assume. Furthermore, the issue is a process rather than a technology one. This is typical because we frequently ignore the human element of the problem and instead concentrate on the product component. The 5 Whys examination thus seeks to thoroughly examine a specific issue until it reveals the root cause. Remember that "5" is only a number. Ask "Why" as often as necessary to finish the process and take the proper action. You can go through Agile Management courses

    How to Get Started With 5 Whys?

    1. Form the Team

    A cross-functional team should carry out the "5 Why" (CFT). You shouldn't do it by yourself at your workstation. The team should consist of experts in the process in question, as well as people from Quality, Process Engineering, and operators from various shifts or the process's subsequent phase. Each team member will contribute their perspective on the issue and pose crucial inquiries that would not have been made otherwise. 

    2. Define the Problem

    Any team doing a root cause analysis should start by stating the issue in detail. Create a problem statement that is precise and clear. The team should maintain its attention on the procedure and not the individuals. The team should also determine the size of the issue that must be solved. When larger, broader improvements are required, the problem-solving exercise may provide tiny improvements if the scope is too limited. On the other hand, addressing the issue too broadly may lengthen the time needed to solve it and lead to ideas that may not match the company's culture or strategy and never be implemented. It often saves time and money when you take the time to explain the issue clearly upfront.

    3. Ask Why

    The team leader or facilitator should then inquire as to "Why" the issue or failure mode materialized. Responses must be supported by facts or statistics rather than being based purely on feelings. The solutions must also concentrate on system or process flaws. The facilitator should then prompt the team to discuss whether the failure mode or issue still exists if the listed causes were fixed. Move on to the second "Why" question if the response is "yes," then the third, fourth, fifth, and so forth until the response is "no," if it is. 

    Reminder: You don't necessarily have to ask "Why" five times. The third or fourth "Why" could reveal the underlying cause. Getting past the problem's symptoms and the source of the issue may also take longer than five times. In addition, by the third, fourth, or fifth "Why," you may have found a systemic issue or a managerial technique to be the root of the problem.

    4. Determine and Implement Corrective Actions

    A list of relevant corrective activities for each root cause should be established after the underlying cause(s) have been identified. 5 Why can one effectively brainstorm answers to the underlying issues and create action plans to fix the issue? The 5 Whys should be asked about the current problem of the facilitator. How might this cause be stopped or found? Ask "Why" again and over again until you find the answer that addresses the fundamental issue. There should be an owner of the actions and a deadline. Regular meetings should be arranged to keep the team informed of the progress of the actions until they are all finished. The effectiveness of the suggested actions should be assessed after they have been carried out. To verify the efficacy of any enhancements, the process could be tracked and measured using statistical process control (SPC), part inspection, or other techniques. 

    5. Know When to Stop

    When asking "why" no longer elicits any further relevant answers, you will know that you have identified the primary cause of the issue and cannot move forward. The need for a suitable countermeasure or process modification should then become clear. Repeat this procedure for each of the various branches of your study until you identify a root cause for each of the reasons you mentioned in Step 3 if you did. 

    • Tip 1: A "rule of thumb" is all that the "5" in the 5 Whys is. Before you find the cause of the issue, you might need to ask "Why?" a few more times in some circumstances. In other circumstances, you might get to this stage before you ponder the fifth "Why?" If you do, check to see if you didn't stop too soon and if you weren't just taking "knee-jerk" answers. The key is to stop asking "Why?" when you aren't getting any more insightful answers.  
    • Tip 2: You might discover that someone has neglected to take the appropriate action as you go through your series of queries. The beautiful thing about 5 Whys is that it challenges you to think beyond blaming and questioning why something occurred. This frequently identifies problems with the organization or places where processes need to be addressed.  
    • Tip 3 Quickly transition from one inquiry to the next to ensure that you get the whole picture before drawing any conclusions. 

    6. Address the Root Cause(s)

    After determining at least one root cause, you must discuss and agree on the remedies that will stop the issue from happening again. The time has come to take remedial action after the team has identified the root cause(s). All members should participate in the conversation to determine and implement the optimal solution that will safeguard your process against repeated issues. One of the team members should oversee carrying out the chosen course of action and keeping track of the entire process after the choice has been taken. 

    The team must reconvene after some time to assess whether their actions had a favorable effect. If not, you should go through the process again. The case should be documented and distributed throughout the organization at the conclusion. Sharing this knowledge will provide a clear picture of a team's various issues and how to resolve those issues. 

    7. Monitor Your Measures

    Keep a close eye on how well your countermeasures resolve or lessen the primary issue. They could need to be changed or completely replaced. If this occurs, it's a good idea to go through the 5 Whys procedure again to make sure you've found the right root cause. 

    • Advice 1. First, don't question why too much. The goal is not to receive a tonne of absurd ideas and complaints, but if you keep going, you could. Try to identify the underlying issue. 
    • Advice 2. Occasionally, there could be more than one underlying cause. The 5 Whys analysis will resemble a matrix with various branches in these circumstances. You might even be able to identify and fix organizational problems that negatively impact performance. 

    5 Whys Root Cause Analysis Template


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    Benefits of Five Whys 

    1. Assist in determining the cause of an issue. 
    2. Establish the connections between the various root causes of an issue. 
    3. One of the easiest instruments to use; is straightforward to finish without statistical analysis. 
    4. When performing a Five Whys analysis on a topic, it helps to find more issues. 
    5. It motivates team members to impart their knowledge and skills. 
    6. It is a powerful tool that is also quite simple to use and enhances decision-making.

    When are Five Whys Not Useful?

    • When issues include people or their interactions
    • In everyday business operations, can be applied to Six Sigma projects or not
    • It is a significant drawback because it is a very simple technique and might not be appropriate for complex issues with multiple possible causes. 
    • A more comprehensive technique, such as full Root cause analysis or cause and effect analysis, which will examine the problem in much more detail, should be used if the problem is complicated and 5 Why Analysis is not appropriate. 

    Summary Statement “If you don’t ask the right questions, you don’t get the right answers. A question asked in the right way often points to its answer. Asking questions is the ABC of diagnosis. Only the inquiring mind solves problems.” – Edward Hodnett 


    Although Five Whys can be utilized for problem-solving, quality enhancement, and troubleshooting, it works best when applied to straightforward or moderately complex issues. It might not be appropriate if you need to solve a complicated or important problem. This is because the five whys can cause you to focus on a single track, or a small number of tracks, of inquiry when there may be several causes. In situations like this, a broader approach like Failure Mode and Effects Analysis or Cause and Effect Analysis may be more useful. 

    But this straightforward method frequently leads you directly to the source of a problem. So, whenever a system or process isn't functioning properly, check it out first before taking a more in-depth approach and before attempting to come up with a solution. Your team can concentrate on identifying any problem's fundamental cause by using the five whys method. Instead of placing blame on other team members, it encourages each member to share suggestions for ongoing improvement. It instills trust in your team that it can solve any issue and stop the process from failing repeatedly. You can check KnowledgeHut Agile Management for more information. 

    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) 

    1. What are the 5 Whys questions?

    An iterative interrogative approach known as "five whys" is used to investigate the cause-and-effect connections underlying a specific issue. The technique's main objective is to identify a fault or problem's root cause by asking "Why?" five times. 

    2. What are the limitations of Five Whys?

    Inability to look outside the investigator's current field of expertise. Inability to uncover new causes. Lack of assistance in asking the investigator the proper "why" questions. Results are not reproducible because different 5 Whys users will identify various root causes for the same issue. 

    3. What are the Five Whys in Six Sigma?

    In the Analyze stage of the Six Sigma DMAIC, the 5 Whys is a fundamental root cause analysis technique (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control). Finding the root of the issue and removing it are the first steps in problem-solving.  

    4. When to Use a 5 Whys Analysis?

    Although 5 Whys can be used for problem-solving, quality-improvement, and troubleshooting, it works best for straightforward or somewhat complex issues. It might not be appropriate if you need to solve a complicated or important problem. 


    Lindy Quick

    Blog Author

    Lindy Quick, SPCT, is a dynamic Transformation Architect and Senior Business Agility Consultant with a proven track record of success in driving agile transformations. With expertise in multiple agile frameworks, including SAFe, Scrum, and Kanban, Lindy has led impactful transformations across diverse industries such as manufacturing, defense, insurance/financial, and federal government. Lindy's exceptional communication, leadership, and problem-solving skills have earned her a reputation as a trusted advisor. Currently associated with KnowledgeHut and upGrad, Lindy fosters Lean-Agile principles and mindset through coaching, training, and successful execution of transformations. With a passion for effective value delivery, Lindy is a sought-after expert in the field.

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