Why, Why, Why, Why, Why? This may sound familiar if you have ever had children. Their simple innocent thirst for knowledge can sometimes be frustrating or infuriating, especially when they follow this line of questioning, but why is this? My guess is that each successive why is asking you to dig deeper into the explanation you’ve already provided and an earlier flippant response just won’t stand up to scrutiny – even from a small child.

Using this five why approach can be a simple way of getting to the root cause of a problem and if used in conjunction with six honest men or the five Ms can really help you drill down to the core of an issue. Here is an illustrative example of how the Five Whys can be used to solve a problem. Don’t be fooled by its simplicity, the five Whys can be used to help solve complex problems:

Problem: The vehicle will not start:
Why? – The battery is dead.
Why? – The alternator is not functioning.
Why? – The alternator belt has broken.
Why? – The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced.
Why? – The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (fifth why, a root cause)

The key to successfully using the Five Whys is to avoid assumptions and logic traps and instead trace the chain of causality in simple steps to a root cause that still has a connection to the original problem. In the example above the final why suggests a broken process or an alterable behaviour. This indicates you’ve reached the root cause.

One of the most important aspects in the 5 Why approach is that the real root cause should point toward a process that is not working well or does not exist. A key phrase to keep in mind in any Five Why exercise is “people do not fail, processes do”. If your answers continually point to people, perhaps the root cause is poor communication, poor supervision or poor training.

Try using the five whys the next time you find a problem you can’t seem to solve – and remember the answer to your problem could be found in as few as three or more than five whys. If you’re asking the right questions, you’ll know when to stop.

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