5 Whys: Planting the First Seeds

By Calvin Ball

Have you ever told a toddler not to touch the stove? You may have received a response of “Why?” The common reply to that somewhat inquisitive/defiant question is, “Because I said so.” That is followed by another, “Why?” And you reply that if they touch the stove they will get burned, which is usually followed by another “Why?” Finally, you realize that you have to break it down and explain that the stove is hot and if they touch it, it will hurt. Fortunately or unfortunately, this plants the seeds in the toddler’s mind to keep asking to gain understanding. This overly simplistic example is the basic definition of the 5 Whys quality tool to delve deep to get at the root of a problem.

5 Whys is an essential root cause analysis tool. It was first used by the Toyota Motor Corporation. Its purpose is to drill down to the root cause(s) of a problem by continually asking why until all potential root causes are identified. The point is that after asking “why” 5 times, the root cause(s) will be revealed during that process. It can be looked at like peeling away the layers of an onion, when you peel one layer you find another. The 5 Whys peels away at the problem to identify different layers of what could potentially be the causes. It is in part an investment in prevention by exposing discrepancies in every level of the process that can be improved.

Here is an example:

  • Problem: The turn-around-time for tests is increasingly prolonged.
    1. Why? – The samples are received in the testing area from the processing area at set times during the day.
    2. Why? – The samples sit in the processing area for an extended period of time.
    3. Why? – The samples are not processed until a defined amount of samples arrive in the lab so they can undergo batch testing?
    4. Why? – The processors were trained to batch samples.
    5. Why? – We have always done it this way.

The 5 Whys technique is not limited to asking only 5 times. You can delve deeper into why this process has not changed over the years. Perhaps, this process could have been initiated in order to save on reagents that were expensive at the time or staffing at the time was minimal and it was a way of organizing the workflow. You will flesh out these details during your investigation. The immediate results of your 5 Whys exercise could be used to create a fish-bone diagram and used in other root cause analysis tools. Your investigation may result in a small tweak in the process or a major overhaul.

Communication and persistence is key to getting to the root of any problem. Consider using empathy when using the 5 Whys technique while questioning individuals. Try to look at the process through their eyes and always remember that people do not fail, processes do. The 5 Whys technique is essential to identifying if a problem exists and exposing the layers of root causes. You may believe that there may be only one problem to address in a process, however after using the 5 Whys, you may end up with multiple problems/root causes. The 5 Whys is one of the first tools in improving processes. Next time you encounter a problem, consider using 5 Whys to plant a seed that will lead to process improvements to enjoy your low hanging fruit.