When it comes to problem solving, there are a lot of tools used by engineers, project managers and people tasked with finding improvements. The tools range in complexity from mind boggling levels of complexity to so simple, even a child could use it. 5 whys comes in as one of the simplest tools you can use one the job, with its simplicity it is easy to quickly dismiss it; but it is generally accepted as one of the strongest tools when it comes to problem solving.
5 Whys originated from Toyota in Japan and is used primarily for root cause analysis. The importance of root cause analysis is simple; you get solutions that are long lasting and far reaching when you tackle problems from the root instead of wasting time on symptoms. A quick example would be treating malaria every month instead of installing mosquito nets on windows, both solutions will solve the malaria problem, but one of them is obviously a superior solution. Treating root causes will always yield better results than battling with symptoms constantly.
Using The Technique
Using 5 Whys is extremely straight forward, the hint is in the name, you simply have to ask “why” 5 times. There is no hard and fast rule that guides how many times “why” should actually be asked; but with most simple problems, once you get to the fifth why, you should have gotten to the root cause. There are problems where you get to the root cause by the third “why” and there are very complex problems which can have you asking why up to 20 times and ending up with a Why Tree (A slightly more advanced application of 5 Whys). What we will instead focus on is tackling simpler problems and solving problems you may encounter in your daily life.
To help illustrate the concept, we can use the example of mosquitoes and malaria stated earlier. With finding root causes, it is best to identify the problem correctly, if not, your root cause analysis might not yield the results you expect. In this case the problem is constantly contracting malaria, with you trying to understand the cause (the “why”). So, let us proceed.
- First Why (Why do I have malaria): Because I am being bitten by mosquitoes
- Second Why (Why am I being bitten by mosquitoes): Because there are mosquitoes in my bedroom
If we stopped here, we would end up fumigating our room. This would have to be done constantly and would end up being a very expensive solution to a simple problem; so we continue to ask “why”
- Third Why (Why are there mosquitoes in my bedroom): Because there are no mosquito nets on the windows
Now we are at a point where a solution would yield longer lasting results, we can decide to stop here and implement a solution which is to install mosquito nets on windows.
From the analysis above you might have noticed one issue with using 5 Whys, when do you know when to stop? This is one criticism of the method; the quality of execution comes down to experience and familiarity with whatever is being analyzed. This is why for complex problems; the exercise is done in a brainstorming session with people from various backgrounds and a facilitator to guide discussions. With these precautions, teams sometimes end up on symptoms; it happens, but solving a symptom that is 4 Whys down is much better than solving a surface level symptom.
The 5 Whys tool is one that you can start using from today and seeing positive results almost immediately. Just think of a child asking why constantly and you are already half way to mastering the technique.