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Introduction to Five Whys

5 Whys is an iterative interrogative technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem.

The primary goal of the Five Why’s technique is to determine the root cause of a defect or problem by repeating the question “Why?” Each question forms the basis of the next question. The “5” in the name derives from an empirical observation on the number of iterations typically required to resolve the problem.

The technique was formally developed by Sakichi Toyoda and was used within the Toyota Motor Corporation during the evolution of its manufacturing methodologies. In other companies, it appears in other forms. Under Ricardo Semler, Semco practices “three whys” and broadens the practice to cover goal setting and decision making.

Not all problems have a single root cause. If one wishes to uncover multiple root causes, the method must be repeated asking a different sequence of questions each time.

The method provides no hard and fast rules about what lines of questions to explore, or how long to continue the search for additional root causes. Thus, even when the method is closely followed, the outcome still depends upon the knowledge and persistence of the people involved.

Examples

  • The vehicle will not start. (the problem)
  1. Why? – The battery is dead. (first why)
  2. Why? – The alternator is not functioning. (second why)
  3. Why? – The alternator belt has broken. (third why)
  4. Why? – The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (fourth why)
  5. Why? – The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (fifth why, a root cause)

The questioning for this example could be taken further to a sixth, seventh, or higher level, but five iterations of asking why is generally sufficient to get to a root cause. The key is to encourage the trouble-shooter to avoid assumptions and logic traps and instead trace the chain of causality in direct increments from the effect through any layers of abstraction to a root cause that still has some connection to the original problem. Note that, in this example, the fifth why suggests a broken process or an alterable behavior, which is indicative of reaching the root-cause level.

It is interesting to note that the last answer points to a process. This is one of the most important aspects in the 5 Why approach – the real root cause should point toward a process that is not working well or does not exist.

Untrained facilitators will often observe that answers seem to point towards classical answers such as not enough time, not enough investments, or not enough manpower. These answers may be true, but they are out of our control. Therefore, instead of asking the question why?, ask why did the process fail?

A key phrase to keep in mind in any 5 Why exercise is “people do not fail, processes do”.

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