The 5 Whys: what they are and how to apply them

Click here to learn more on how to apply the 5 Whys method to solve everyday problems with greater efficiency!

When faced with a problem, it is very common to try solving it by looking at its symptoms. It’s human instinct. However, this kind of approach has an incomplete or temporary effect. Without addressing the root cause, it is likely the problem will recur, which is known as recurrence.

This kind of situation occurs frequently in the corporate environment, requiring an effective method to help solve the problems that arise on a daily basis. This is where the 5 Whys come in.

What is the 5 Whys method?

The 5 Whys is a simple, but powerful method of analysis that helps to identify the root cause of a problem. Created by Sakichi Toyoda, founder of Toyota Industries, the method was widely applied in another of the group’s companies known worldwide- Toyota Motor Corporation- which helped it to become popular across the automotive industry. For this reason, many people still believe that this is a specific tool for the automotive industry. The truth is that companies of any size or sector can apply the 5 Whys to solve problems and implement corrective actions.

How to apply the 5 Whys

The application of the 5 Whys is quite simple: after identifying a problem, you ask “why” five times until you arrive at the cause of the problem. It is important to clarify that “five” is just a number suggested by the method. There are cases where it may be necessary to go beyond the five questions, as well as cases where it is possible to get to the root cause of the problem before the fifth why. The great advantage of this method is that it allows you to go beyond what is obvious and arrive at causes that are not initially visible. This simplicity makes it one of the most used tools for understanding the root causes of problems.

To successfully apply the 5 Why method, it is important to be aware of a few things:

  • Don’t try to fix everything yourself. You need a team that knows the process and the details of the problem that has to be corrected. It is important that this team has a facilitator who can guide the other participants and help to keep the focus on identifying the causes.
  • The second thing is to describe the problem so that everyone can clearly understand what is happening. Often, with an analysis of data (documents, records, e-mails), or by going to the site, the team can observe the problem occurring. With several pairs of eyes focused on the problem, you can ensure important details are not overlooked.
  • Following this, the team can start asking, “Why did this problem occur?” A common mistake that many teams make at the point is to answer this question with assumptions or hypotheses. This usually occurs with people who are new to the method, and it can lead the team to pursue imaginary problems. For this reason, it is important that each answer is based on evidence.
  • Keep asking “Why” until you get to the root cause of the problem. As mentioned earlier, five is just a reference. With some problems, you will need to ask why more than five times, while, with others, you will be able to determine the root cause of the problem before that.
  • Another thing that often leads to uncertainty among people new to the 5 Whys is knowing the right time to stop asking questions and conclude the analysis. This usually occurs when a question is asked and you can’t answer it with evidence.
  • Once the root cause of the problem is identified, the team should define what actions should be taken to correct the problem and prevent it from recurring.

A practical example of applying the 5 Whys

So far, we have looked at the concept behind the application of the 5 Whys. Let’s look at a practical example of applying this tool to help us understand it better:

Problem: Parts with incomplete paint job

  1. Why? Paint station stopped in the middle of the process
  2. Why? No electricity
  3. Why? Tripped circuit breaker
  4. Why? Wiring melted and shorted
  5. Why? The installed cabling is inadequate (root cause)

Now, working backwards, we can validate the logic: the power cabling was inadequate, which caused overheating, melting the plastic coating of the wires, leading to a short that tripped the circuit breaker, halting the paint station operation, resulting in the incomplete painting process.

With the identification of the root cause, the team should discuss and determine what actions to implement to prevent the problem from recurring. In this case, it is replacing the power cabling with cables that meets the paint station manufacturer’s recommendations. The team should monitor the implementation of these corrective actions and assess whether they are effective and have actually eliminated the cause of the problem. If the problem persists, the 5 Whys method should be repeated.

How to improve your company’s quality management system


As we have seen in this article, the 5 Whys is a simple, but highly effective tool. The combination of a team that knows the method and an organization’s processes becomes a valuable force for identifying causes and solving problems.

To learn more about this topic, I invite you to get to know SoftExpert Problem, a tool that automates the application of the 5 Whys method to solve everyday problems with greater efficiency!

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Marcelo Becher


Marcelo Becher

Specialist in Strategic Management from PUC-PR. Business and market analyst at SoftExpert, a software provider for enterprise-wide business processes automation, improvement, compliance management and corporate governance.

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