The 5 Whys Technique: Discover the Root of a Problem for Kaizen

Group of four diverse teachers sit in a circle around a table and discuss ideas.

If you are going to do kaizen continuously…you’ve got to assume that things are a mess. Too many people just assume that things are all right the way they are. Aren’t you guys convinced that the way you’re doing things is the right way? That’s no way to get anything done. Kaizen is about changing the way things are. If you assume that things are all right the way they are, you can’t do kaizen. So change something!

– Taiichi Ohno

You can use 5 Whys for troubleshooting, quality improvement, and problem-solving, but it is most effective when used to resolve simple or moderately difficult problems. Follow the steps below.

Watch the below video for an example of The 5 Whys Problem-Solving Method.

STEP 1: Assemble a Team

Gather a group of people familiar with the problem you are trying to solve, and include someone to act as a facilitator to keep the team focused.

STEP 2: Define the Problem

Discuss the problem as a team, and write a brief, clear problem statement. Write this statement on a whiteboard or shared Google Doc leaving enough space to add your answers to the repeated “Why?”.

STEP 3: Ask the First “Why?”

Search for answers grounded in fact, not simply guessing at what might have happened. This avoids the process generating large number of possible causes. However, you may have a few answers, and that is fine. Record the answer(s) as succinct phrases, rather than single words.

STEP 4: Ask “Why?” Four More Times

For each of the answers from Step 4, ask four further “whys” in succession. Each time, frame the question in response to the answer you’ve just recorded.

STEP 5: Know When to Stop

You’ll know that you’ve revealed the root cause of the problem when asking “why” produces no more useful responses, and you can go no further. Review Tip 3 below for additional insight.

STEP 6: Address the Root Cause(s)

Now that you’ve identified at least one root cause, you need to discuss and agree on the counter-measures that will prevent the problem from recurring.

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