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How to Use the 5 Whys Technique for a Root Cause Analysis

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Mar 6, 2020 • 4 min read

Root cause analysis (RCA) is a common process for discovering the origin of a business problem. While there are many RCA problem-solving techniques, one popular and easy technique is the 5 Whys method. Performing a 5 Whys analysis is one of the most efficient ways to both discover the root cause of a problem and ensure that steps are taken to prevent it from happening again.



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What Is the 5 Whys Technique?

The 5 Whys technique is a problem-solving method that relies on asking “why?” five times in a continuous sequence to discover the root cause of a problem. Each time you ask why a problem occurred, your answer then becomes the premise of your next question, forcing you to dig deeper and deeper into the true cause of the issue.

This informed decision-making technique is used to examine the cause-and-effect relationships hidden behind a specific problem. Rather than coming up with a solution that could only address a certain symptom, the 5 Whys process focuses on countermeasures that aim to prevent the problem from ever occurring again.

An Example of the 5 Whys Technique

Here’s an example of how this technique could be used to figure out the cause of the following problem: A business went over budget on a recent project.

  1. Q: “Why did we go over budget on our project?” A: It took much longer than we expected to complete.
  2. Q: “Why did it take longer than expected to complete?” A: We had to redesign several elements of the product.
  3. Q: “Why did we have to redesign elements of the product?” A: Features of the product were confusing to use.
  4. Q: “Why were the features of the product confusing to use?” A: We made incorrect assumptions about what users wanted.
  5. Q: “Why did we make incorrect assumptions about what users wanted?” A: Our user experience research team didn’t ask effective questions.

In this 5 Whys example, you can see that the nature of the problem ended up being quite different from the answer to the first question. People will often initially blame a problem on something that’s out of their control, such as a technological failure or an unpredictable situation, but that naturally fails to account for any human factors. For instance, the underlying cause of our example problem was not that it was impossible to predict how long the project would take to complete, but rather a human error: The company’s user experience team didn’t ask effective questions.

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How to Conduct a 5 Whys Analysis in 5 Steps

Here’s the process for conducting a successful 5 Whys analysis of your own:

  1. Gather a team. Collect the team members who are knowledgeable about the process that is to be examined. An effective team will consist of people with varying perspectives on the issue. Once your team is assembled, appoint someone to the position of “5 Whys Master.” This person will be in charge of keeping the team focused, leading the discussion, and delegating responsibilities based on the counter-measures identified by the group.
  2. Define the problem. Your team should talk about the issue and define it in a concise way using a problem statement. You want to make this statement as specific as possible because a statement that’s too broad could end up resulting in a time-consuming analysis that expands outside the confines of your problem’s root cause.
  3. Ask “why?” five times. Your team will decide on the first “why?” question to start with, and then the 5 Whys Master should lead the team in asking the sequence of questions. Make sure the answer to each question is based on factual data instead of disputable group opinions. Note that the number five is just a rule of thumb; it’s very possible you may need to ask more than five questions to identify the root cause of the problem. It’s also possible that you could need less than five questions to identify the right answer. The idea is that you should end this step once you’re no longer coming up with practical answers.
  4. Take corrective action. Once you’ve identified the root cause of the problem, the entire team should discuss a list of corrective actions or counter-measures to take in order to prevent the problem from recurring. The 5 Whys Master should then delegate which team members should take responsibility for each item on the list.
  5. Monitor and share your results. It’s important to carefully monitor how successful your counter-measures are in stopping the problem. If they aren’t as effective as you need them to be, it means you may not have found the proper root cause and you should repeat the 5 Whys technique again from the beginning. Lastly, record your findings and distribute them throughout your organization so that everyone is able to learn from this particular case study.


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