How to Apply the Five Whys Analysis to a Business Problem

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published November 7, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

When businesses encounter challenges, they perform various analyses to help them understand the root cause and to overcome them. They often ask "Why?" numerous times until its root cause becomes apparent, and they can create a countermeasure. Learning about a five whys approach can help you use it effectively to address a business's problem. In this article, we define the five whys method of analysis, explain its two techniques, list the steps to conduct it, give tips for conducting it, and show an example.

What is the five whys method of analysis?

The five whys method of analysis is a popular tool within organizations. It enables businesses to find solutions to problems by asking "Why?" until they determine its root or primary cause. The simplistic nature of this technique makes it applicable to various issues organizations may face, including troubleshooting, quality improvement, and problem-solving. It also means that this technique is the most useful when you use it for easy or moderately complex problems.

This technique operates on a go-and-see philosophy where having an in-depth understanding of a problem requires going directly to the production department rather than discussing it in a board meeting. You can use it as a preliminary inquiry into problems before applying more in-depth approaches.

Techniques for conducting 5 whys analysis

Five whys is a narrow analysis technique that can be non-linear when problems have more than one cause. When problems have multiple causes, you may use one of the two techniques below:

Fishbone

A fishbone or cause-and-effect diagram is a visualization tool that enables you to relate causes with an effect or problem. This technique's name comes from the outlook of the diagram, which appears similar to the bones of a fish. You write out the problem, then draw an arrow pointing to it. Along this arrow, you draw lines at an angle and name them according to the category in which the causes may fall.

For example, you may indicate a machine line, where you outline every cause of the problem that relates to machines, such as blade wear and heat exchanger leak. Most fishbone diagrams contain six lines, but you may have more, depending on the complexity of the problem. Common categories in fishbone diagrams include:

  • machine

  • method

  • measurements

  • materials

  • personnel

  • environment

Read more: What Is a Fishbone Diagram and How Can You Create One

Table

Tables, such as a spreadsheet, are also a common way of determining the cause of a problem using the analysis of five whys. Using this technique, you create a table with ten columns containing the whys and their possible answers. The title of each column may reflect the number of whys, while an independent cell, typically at the top of the columns, contains the problem statement. You insert the question in a column, while the answer column can contain all the possible causes of the problem. You typically repeat this until you determine the problem's root cause.

How to conduct a 5 whys analysis

Follow the steps below when you want to use this analysis for a business problem:

1. Gather a team

It's essential to gather a team to conduct a five whys analysis because of its underlying philosophy. Those with the most ideas about the problem are those who relate directly to it. For example, a vehicle manufacturer that wants to understand why tires keep bursting may best derive these answers from the factory employees. You can also add other employees and managers to your team who you believe are insightful and can provide diverse perspectives on the problem's cause.

Related: What Is a Brainstorming Template? (With Benefits and Steps)

2. Identify the problem

After you have gathered the team, you may have them provide the problem, which is usually a singular and clear statement. Ensure that the team agrees on the problem and avoid trying to solve multiple problems through a single questioning line. An example of a logistics company problem statement is that customers are complaining about and returning orders. While the problem may have multiple causes, each can come under the singular problem statement. If the business has more than one problem to solve, you may create an equal number of problem statements and solve them separately.

3. Ask "Why?" for the first time

Ask the first why to determine the most recent cause of the problem. Asking "Why?" generally seems simple to understand a problem, but its answer often requires deep thoughts. For example, a business receiving massive returns on its orders may ask, why are customers complaining about and returning orders? During your questioning, ensure you separate causes from symptoms. A cause is a reason for a problem, while a symptom is its manifestation.

Ensure your answers also reflect events that have already occurred rather than guesses of events that may occur. If you discover more than one cause for a particular problem, you can use the fishbone or table technique to create a separate line of questioning for each. Customers may be complaining about and returning orders because of defects in the goods, late delivery, or differences between what they ordered and what they got.

4. Continue to ask "Why?"

Ask "Why?" four more times to get closer and determine the problem's leading cause. You typically ask this why in response to the answer you generated from the previous question. For example, if customers are returning orders because of late deliveries, you may ask why that is.

Suppose the reason for the late deliveries is that order processing and packaging requires a long period. You ask "Why?" again to understand the reason. Then, if the answer is because processes are manual, you ask "Why?" once more to understand the reason for the manual processes. The assumption is that after asking "Why?" four more times to make five whys, you may get the root cause of the problem. You can increase the number of whys beyond five if that isn't enough.

5. Prepare an action plan

After identifying the root cause, you may now prepare an action plan to help develop countermeasures that prevent the problem from occurring in the future. While solutions are suitable for short-term problem management, countermeasures help you address the problem at its root cause and prevent it from happening again. For example, if a vehicle manufacturing company discovers many defective tires, it may decide to hire new employees. Using the five whys may enable the company to know that the root cause of the problem is inadequate employee training rather than employees' incapability.

Related: What Is Business Process Analysis? (With How-to Guide)

6. Evaluate results

Consider measuring the effectiveness of your action plan to understand if it needs modification. You may create metrics based on the problem's nature and the performance of the countermeasures. It's advisable to involve all team members in the action plan and have another meeting where the team discusses the impact of the plans.

Related: 5 Business Improvement Techniques Including How-to Steps

Tips for conducting a 5 whys analysis

Below are best practices for conducting a productive five whys analysis:

  • Inform major stakeholders. Analysis involving five whys are typically on issues that affect the company's overall state, so it's important to inform all stakeholders. You may also bring in an external facilitator to help simplify complex problems.

  • Clarify problems. Define the problem and make a clear problem statement before asking whys multiple times. That helps you narrow the scope of the analysis and helps you avoid unreasonable suggestions from asking too many whys.

  • Use a whiteboard. Consider using a whiteboard instead of a computer to avoid confusion. You may also use spreadsheet software, but ensure everyone understands it.

  • Base statements on research data. When asking and answering the whys of the problem and causes, ensure you only mention events that have occurred and of which you have historical records. Doing this can help increase your analysis accuracy to determine a countermeasure quickly.

Related: Examples of the Five Whys Analysis (An Introductory Guide)

Example of a five whys problem

The example below shows how an organization applied the five whys analysis to address an internal issue:

ComfyNeeds is a retail store that resells various kinds of goods. The company discovers that over the last three months, its number of customers has decreased by 25%. The store manager calls a meeting of all customer sales representatives, cashiers, and store assistants to understand the purpose. They applied five whys as below:

Problem: reduced number of customers

  1. Why? Customers stopped coming to the store and are patronizing other retail outlets.

  2. Why? The company failed to meet customers' expectations

  3. Why? Poor customer service is driving them away.

  4. Why? Customer service representatives and sales assistants lack the training to interact with customers appropriately.

  5. Why? The training program for new employees is lacking in customer service techniques.

At the meeting, they created an action plan to conduct a customer service training workshop and monitor the number of customers in the store for the next six months.

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