The “5 Whys” Technique for Problem Solving

The technique is based on a game which was formally developed by Sakichi Toyoda.

Main Goal:

The primary goal of the technique is to determine the root cause of a problem or dysfunction, to have an overall view of the situation or to link an issue to its context (by exploring the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem).

The approach consists of a systematic questioning (by repeating the question “Why” at least 5 times), which is intended to trace the primary cause of a situation. It also aims ” to read between the lines”, which means that spontaneity and openness should be encouraged in this exercise. Each question forms the basis of the next question. The “5” derives from an empirical observation on the number of iterations typically required to resolve the problem.

Taiichi Ohno, the architect of the Toyota Production System in the 1950s, describes the method in his book Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production as “the basis of Toyota’s scientific approach . . . by repeating why five times, the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear.”

Number of players: 1 à 5

Methodology:

  1. At the beginning of the meeting, you need to state clearly the problem on which team must reflect on. Then write it on a whiteboard so that is visible to the entire team.
  2. Distribute sticky notes to the players and ask them to number these from 1 to 5.
  3. Invite the team to study the problem and to note the first thing that comes to mind when answering the question “Why «. And then, to write their answer on the first post-it.
  4. Why is this answer correct (or simply another “Why?”)? Invite them to reflect on the root cause of the response they noted on the first post-it. Participants will then need to note it on the second post-it.
  5. Keep asking the question “Why ” until all 5 post-it have an answer written on.
  6. On the whiteboard, write 5 times the word “Why” vertically. Then, create columns in order to include the post-it of all the participants. Invite them to arrange their post-it from the first post-it (top of the column) to the last.
  7. Examine the columns with the team. Discuss the similarities and differences. Agree with the group on the ” five whys” that offer the best understanding of the problem.
  8. When all the players came to an agreement, a group member will then write the final answers on 5 blank post-it that will arrange them into a final column below the listed problem.
  9. Start a discussion on the next steps and come up with 5 related “corrective actions”.
  10. Assign responsibility for solutions.
  11. Email the team the results.

Example: Why the company had such low sales at the end of the year? (problem)

  1. Why?

Poor quality product.

  1. Why?

Bad design.

  1. Why?

Missing tests.

  1. Why?

No budget for testing.

  1. Why?

Leadership underestimates the tests.

Observations:

While the rule of “5” questions is a very good starting point, note that the number “5” is not fixed. You can continue the exercise until you feel that the group manages to find real answers/solutions.

The 5 Whys techniques is also applicable to daily life for any situation where that requires deeper understanding of a problem.

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