The 5 Whys technique – dig deep to find the root cause of any problem

The 5 Whys technique – dig deep to find the root cause of any problem

5 Whys is an analytical technique that helps to explore cause-and-effect relationships when you encounter a problem. The basic idea is to repeat the question “why?” until you find the root cause. That most often requires asking the question why at least five times. That’s where the name comes from. Nevertheless, don’t stop at the fifth why if you need to dig deeper.

The 5 Whys technique is part of the lean production system and was first used in Toyota. It was invented by Sakichi Toyoda, founder of Toyota Industries. He first used the technique in the 1950s, then it became extremely popular in the 1970s and it’s still used in the company today.

The technique also became part of the Six Sigma process improvement technique and an important part of the lean startup methodology (here is Eric Ries, one of its founding fathers, writing about it). There are a few critics of the system, stating that the technique is too simple, but that’s one of its real powers.

5Whys Toyota

Source: Toyota Global Site

Employing the 5 Whys technique when you encounter a problem especially helps to avoid logical traps, discussions based on wrong assumptions, and avoiding the essence of why the problem is really happening. Consequently, you can easily avoid playing the blame game, feeling sorry for yourself and doing any other unproductive activities, and go straight to finding the source of the problem.

The basic standpoint in business when doing a 5 Whys analysis is that people do not fail, processes do. Thus the 5 Whys analysis should be directed into digging deep to find a fault in the process and to identify causality with the root cause (or several of them) and a series of consequences. It’s also important that a person who uses the technique has first-hand experience with the problem.

With the 5 Whys Analysis you dig deep to find the root cause of a problem. When you do that you get a chance not to only successfully solve a problem, but to make sure it doesn’t repeat itself.

Here is a practical example of the 5 Whys technique in business and how it can help you focus on the flaws in a process.

  1. An article wasn’t published on our company website. Why?
  2. Nobody published the article. Why?
  3. Nobody was given the instruction to write and publish an article. Why?
  4. A team leader forgot to delegate the task. Why?
  5. There is no content calendar in place. Why?
  6. Nobody took the time to prepare the content calendar. Why?
  7. Because nobody thought that the content calendar was important enough.

Now, when you know the root cause, you have two options. You can point fingers and look for the person who hadn’t published an article and is responsible for the website. But if you do that, it will happen again sooner or later, just to someone else (or even to the same person).

A much better investment of your mental effort is to think about how to improve the process, be it with the content calendar, adding responsibility to one of the team members or anyhow else. Just according to Kaizen rules, you must be careful not to improve processes with more administration.

There is another very important part. You have to commit to make a corrective action for every step of the analysis in the process. Of course the investment must be proportionate to the size of every problem. When you are using the technique in business, it’s important to include everything affected by the problem, assign responsibilities for the solutions and notify everyone about the problem that’s being solved and how it was solved. It’s also good to have one single person be the 5 Whys master in a company.

Focus on the cure, not the symptoms.

The steps to professionally performing the 5 Whys analysis in business are:

  1. The 5 Whys master writes down exactly what a problem is.
  2. The 5 Whys master makes sure that everyone affected agrees with the problem and that there are people with first-hand experience present.
  3. All the data and facts that illustrate the problem are presented – proofs, history of knowledge, different data etc.
  4. The group of affected people preforms the 5 Whys analysis, starting by asking the first why and then the second one, and so on.
  5. The group finds and agrees on solutions proportionate to the size of the problem (cause) in every step.
  6. The management or the 5 Whys master assigns responsibilities for the implementation of solutions.
  7. Everybody in the company is notified about the solutions.

As you can see, the 5 Whys methodology really is simple, effective, comprehensive, flexible, engaging and really inexpensive. All you have to do is to make sure you don’t mistake symptoms for root causes, sometimes there is more than one root cause to search for, you shouldn’t settle for the first obvious solution but dig deep, and you should absolutely avoid the blame game and focus on the process.

People always make mistakes, no matter how good they are.

As a slightly detailed end note, before we go on to using the 5 Whys technique in personal life, the 5 Whys technique in business is most useful in the transition phase where you go from the search mode to the execution mode and in the execution mode itself. In the search mode, you don’t blindly follow any process, but you search for your perfect fit by validating hypotheses. That’s the only process you follow.

In the execution mode, you want to build an organization based on finding your fit. You want to perfectly and faultlessly follow the process to achieve your execution goals (goals for product development, marketing, finances etc.). To put the system and processes in place, you encounter many small faults that need to be addressed and fixed immediately. 5 Whys can help you identify the root causes and improve the processes accordingly.

5 Whys

Using the 5 Whys technique in personal life

You can use the same principle to identify many root causes of problems in your personal life. The 5 Whys analysis is one of the tools you can use in performing self-reflection and self-analysis.

Here are a few examples of what you can discover by using the 5 Whys technique in your personal life:

  • Why you think as you do
  • Where your beliefs come from
  • Why you feel or act as you do
  • Why you behave a certain way with certain people
  • Why you like some people and dislike others
  • What leads to a certain situation that you have to encounter in your life
  • And so on

Here’s the big surprise. You will often find that the root cause of your thinking or behaving is something completely different from what you initially thought. Very often you will be surprised at what your real emotional or behavioral issue is. You just have to be willing to accept the truth and dig deep.

I use this technique very often and I am always surprised about the underlying cause that led to the problem. I figured out that the root cause of 90 % of the problems I encounter in life are deep underlying emotional knots, false beliefs, bad habits or a lack of knowledge. There is only a small set of problems caused by a lack of luck or changes in the environment. Most often I am the one leading myself straight into encountering the problem.

Dig deep using the 5 Whys technique

There are two ways how you can perform the 5 Whys technique. You can do it in a very superficial way or you can do the exercise in a professional and diligent way. You do it in a superficial way when you are avoiding the root causes, when you don’t dig deep enough.

When you are analyzing only symptoms, searching for somebody to blame or identifying unexpected changes in the external environment, you are most often running away from what you should really face and deal with.  The 5 Whys analysis will bring you to miraculous results only once you decide to confront your personal problems with all the bravery you possess.

Let me give you an example.

  • The problem: I was late to work.
  • Why? I got out of bed too late.
  • Why? I snoozed the alarm clock five times, unable to wake up.
  • Why? I went to bed very late and didn’t get enough sleep.
  • Why? I was watching TV late into the night.
  • Why? There was a quite interesting movie on TV.
  • Solution: Don’t start watching any movie after 5PM.

That may be the right solution. Being late to work can be caused by watching TV late into the night. But what if the problem repeats itself after you decide to implement the solution and there is another, deeper root causing the problem? What if the analysis needs to be performed more honestly?

  • The problem: I was late to work.
  • Why? I got out of bed too late.
  • Why? I snoozed the alarm clock five times, unable to wake up.
  • Why? I went to bed very late and didn’t get enough sleep.
  • Why? I was browsing 9gag on my mobile phone.
  • Why? I had a very stressful day and needed to relax and forget about everything.
  • Why? I hate my job.
  • Why? Because my boss is constantly criticizing me.
  • Why? Because I don’t meet the required standards at my work.
  • Why? Because I hate what I do.
  • Solution: Find something that you enjoy and change your job.

The key point in the personal 5 Whys analysis is to always dig deep into yourself and find the root cause in the most honest, truthful and painful way. With this kind of a deep analysis you usually get to painful personal things like:

  • Nobody taught me how to do it the right way
  • I am envious, greedy, jealous etc.
  • I am complexly unhappy with a job, relationship etc.
  • I have a really shitty habit I need to change
  • I have a deep toxic belief etc.
  • Similar issues that are causing a problem to appear

I hope you can see how the 5 Whys analysis can be extremely helpful if you want to improve the quality of your life and grow personally.

Here are the steps of performing the 5 Whys analysis for your personal problems:

  1. Write down very specifically what your problem is
  2. List everyone affected and how they’re related to your problem (supporters, blockers …)
  3. Gather all the data that explain and support the problem – data, facts etc.
  4. Start asking yourself why at least five times or more and find one or more root causes
  5. Find a proportionate solution for every step of the process
  6. Prepare a plan for getting rid of the root cause
  7. Communicate constructively with other affected people how you will eliminate the root cause
Practical examples

Let me give you one more example from my personal life. This is the last 5 Whys analysis I did for one of my problems and you will get a clear picture of what the difference between symptoms is, the root causes, and how the analysis can do miracles for you to get straight to the bottom line.

  • The problem: I have a constant problem with a pinched ulnar nerve on my right hand
  • The symptoms: Tingling in fingers during sleep, pain in the wrist, elbow and shoulder etc.
  • Proof and data: Medical diagnosis, different medical examinations (won’t go into details)
  • Why? Because my posture is really bad
    • Why? Because I always had a poor posture from early childhood
      • Why? Because I wanted to shrink myself to be as small as possible
      • Why? Because I was never allowed to develop healthy assertiveness
      • Why? Because of over-controlling upbringing based on fear
      • Why? Because of my parents’ emotional issues
    • Why? Because my core muscles are extremely weak
      • Why? Because I never trained my core muscles
      • Why? Because I prefer to lift weights
      • Why? To compete with others and grow muscles
      • Why? To prove to myself that I am worthy
  • Why? Because I get extremely anxious and nervous in certain situations
    • Why? Because I don’t trust myself and life enough
    • Why? Because I never trusted anyone
    • Why? Because I was always emotionally neglected
    • Why? Because I was raised in a toxic environment and developed Complex PTSD
    • Why? Because my parents couldn’t provide a safe environment
  • Why? Because I over train my body
    • Why? To take away the tension and energy
    • Why? Because I have a hard time to relax and just be
    • Why? Because I am running away from my past
    • Why? Because I don’t want to be caught in toxic relationships anymore
    • Why? Because nothing is ever good enough in such relationships
  • Why? Because I sit too much
    • Why? Because I work sitting down most of the time
    • Why? Because I didn’t research any other potential solutions
    • Why? Because the problem isn’t big enough yet
    • Why? Because I am still young

This kind of analysis that you can do in 30 – 60 minutes can tell you a lot. The first thing that it can tell you is that a few visits to a chiropractor or physiotherapist won’t solve the problem. They may help with the symptoms a little bit, but it won’t solve the real problem. So instead of going line by line, we can identify all the solutions linked directly to the root causes and then prioritize the solutions according to resources and their effect.

  • Develop healthy assertiveness where you have no problem walking around the world “standing up straight” . Write down and implement 5 exercises to practice assertiveness.
  • Lifting weights and hurting yourself won’t help you, you’ll only prove to yourself that you can get yourself to a hospital. Don’t lift a single weight until you enhance your core muscles.
  • Do different exercises to deal with Complex PTSD – deep breathing, emotional accounting, thought stopping, emotional flashback management etc. Don’t work out when you’re in an emotional flashback.
  • Set limits to how much you train per week and never ever cross them. Gradually increase the frequency and duration.
  • Research potential solutions to not sit as much during work, for example a standing desk. Walk for a few miles every day to keep your spine healthy and flexible.
  • Do daily exercises for your spine and work regularly with a physiotherapist to measure your progress and get additional advice.

5W1H Questions

5W1H – When you have a big block on the road and you get nowhere

Digging deep is sometimes an easy job, but most often it’s too painful to admit to yourself how you are ruining your own life with your thoughts and behaviors. You basically hide the truth from yourself to protect yourself. So digging deep is often a dead end. You encounter a concrete wall that you simply can’t surpass.

Therefore, you have to sometimes mentally trick yourself by looking at the same problem from many different angles. You have to dig all around until you can find a way in. If you want to achieve that, you have to add all other questions next to why – what, who, when and where? You can also add how to the list (that’s where the name 5W1H or Five Ws comes from).

When you’re adding new questions and looking at the problem from different angles, you try to “guess” a connection between the consequences and the root cause. As mentioned, it’s just too painful to get the root cause from the subconscious mind to the conscious mind, but when you guess the right causality and keep your mind open at the same time, you get a hunch of what it could be sooner or later.

Then you can start digging deeper with 5 whys. Let me emphasize again that while you do that, the most important thing is to keep your mind open for any possibility. Keeping your mind open means that you are willing to accept any kind of truth no matter how hurtful it is, that you are willing to face your negative emotions, behavioral patterns and intentions, and that you are most often your own worst enemy.

Here are examples of how you can shift views on a problem from different angles:

  • What does this situation remind me of?
  • What am I trying to achieve with my behavior?
  • What is causing others to behave towards me as they do?
  • What is the best way to improve my situation?
  • What is the main reason that I am blocking myself?
  • What if I did, believed, thought etc. the opposite?
  • What will happen if I do the complete opposite?
  • Who was behaving the same way as I am?
  • Who is supporting me and why, and who is blocking me and why?
  • When did I feel the same way as I do now?
  • When did I behave in the exact same way?
  • Where do I behave the same way as I am behaving now?
  • Where are the beliefs and values the same as they are here?
  • How would my life look like if I believed the opposite from what I believe now?
  • How is my behavior different from that of more successful people?
  • After every question, you ask yourself why, why, why and dig deep.

List all your problems, select one of them and start asking yourself why

It’s time to apply the theory to practice. I encourage you to list five of the biggest problems you’re currently facing in your life. Select the one that’s causing you the biggest headaches. Make sure you are alone and that you have at least 1 hour of time. Take a pen and a piece of paper and let’s begin.

Write down exactly what your problem is. State all the symptoms, facts and thoughts about the problem. Start asking yourself why. Dig towards many different root causes. You can do the exercise as a mind-map, bullet list, or whatever suits you best. Dig deep, look at the problem from different angles and find the root causes. Then list the solutions, rank them and implement them.

Don’t be shocked if the root causes are something completely different from what you initially thought. Life works in very mysterious ways. Your job is to find out how you operate and why, and make sure that you are operating in the best way possible. The first step is to understand why and the second one to act.