The 5 Why's Method

Written on the 11 April 2013 by Angela Magnan

The “5-Whys” is a well known method used to analyse the outward symptoms of a problem in order to find its fundamental cause.

This interesting method involves asking "Why… ?" five times in succession. This can sound simple, but requires intelligent application in order to find the Why? Solution.
In most cases, the answer to one question will lead you to ask the next Why…?, although it may not always be possible to answer the next question immediately.  Often, you may need to brainstorm in order to answer it properly.  By the time you get to the fourth or fifth Why…? you are almost always looking straight at business practices as opposed to mere symptoms.
The “5-Why’s” method is a valuable and powerful exercise which requires practice, patience and a team approach.  There’s no doubt that the more you use and practice this exercise, the more you’ll begin to find the real root causes of problems.

Sales teams are often not as skilled as we would like, and we are not sure where we are headed in the next year as we are unsure what needs to be done or the process to follow to grow our business.

Why...? We pay for training from our budget so only a very limited number of our team can take courses
Why...? We are not aware that there is funding available for Certificate II to Diploma level training which will offset the cost of training
Why...? We have not called NTG to see what funding is available for our situation
Why...? We have not had time to call, or it has not been a priority to upskill our staff
Why...? We have not completed an HR development plan, strategic plan or delegated the responsibility to anyone as we did not know how to do this as we have not been trained yet.

Using the method:
Too often, people stop at the first or second simple answer, blinded by the symptoms or settling for the first ‘apparent’ cause. The first ‘cause’ offered is almost never the real root cause.  And only when you find that, can you really take effective action to remove the cause and so prevent the problem cropping up again.
I’ve lost count of the times that ‘s/he made a mistake’ or ‘it was just human error’ has been proffered as the cause of a failure. Of course we are human, and of course mistakes happen.  But that’s one of the reasons that robust quality systems are needed – systems designed to have inbuilt controls and mechanisms that help avoid error in the first place, as well as aim to detect it if it does occur, and to do something effective to stop it recurring.

Always look for the root cause, and beware of accepting too simple answers, or those immediate ‘kneejerk’ answers to questions. They’re often misleading, and they may deal only with symptoms – the outward signs of a problem that are observed, but which are not its real root cause.

One reason a good quality management system insists on a systematic approach to dealing with nonconformity, corrective and preventive action is because getting these right can produce quite enormous improvements in even smallish systems. If you are still responding individually to problems, weaknesses and failures, then you’re almost certainly still in reactive mode: one of the hallmarks of a business with an immature system. Organisations with mature systems are in proactive mode: they’ve already recognized this and used it to improve.
Aim to collect information on your problems and failures, analyse them and spend time on them. Because symptoms can crop up in various places and disguises, and fool you into thinking they are all different, whereas often they are often just ‘more of the same’.

If for some reason I was only allowed to choose two ‘quality’ methods or tools to work with, it would be this method and the PDSA (Plan Do Study Act) cycle. They are both indispensable.

Note: The 5-Why method is closely related to the Cause & Effect (Fishbone) diagram; it can be very effective to use them together. Funny how the 5 whys will always find the root cause of the problem!

Copyright Zoom in Business 2013

Author:Angela Magnan