5 whys technique: Find the root cause of your problem

Have you ever tried to solve the same problem over and over again? Why does the problem come up again? Because you just fixed the symptoms. Why don’t you fix the underlying cause? Because you don’t know the underlying cause. Why don’t you know the underlying causes? Because you don’t know how to identify them. …

Fixing the symptoms of a problem will not resolve it. To fix a problem permanently you have to fix the underlying causes. The difficulty is to identify the causes. One very effective and easy method to find the root of a problem is the so-called 5 why technique.

People trying to find a solution to a problem – By: Sebastiaan ter BurgCC BY 2.0

The 5 whys technique

Define the Problem: Define the problem so that everybody can understand it.

Gather the right people: Keep the number of people as small as possible. I recommend a maximum of 6 people, including you. Pick them very carefully. They should be involved with the problem. Start with the person affected by the problem and involve other only, if you can’t avoid it.

Ask why repeatedly: Start asking why is the Problem happening. Ask again for the answer of the question. Usually it takes 5 times asking to identify the root cause of the problem. You could need more or fewer times.

It is very important to moderate, if you use this technique as a group. The 5 whys can easily turn into 5 blames. Keep in mind: people don’t fail, processes do!

Like everything in life the technique has some pros and cons


  • Easy to teachers

  • Easy to use

  • Prevent solutions that fix the symptoms


  • Results are not repeatable

  • One problem can have many causes. The 5 whys tend to point to one

  • The results are limited to personal experience

As you can see the 5 whys have some limitations. Some people exclude the technique, just because the results are not repeatable. In my opinion the results are not exactly repeatable. You tent to become similar results but different abstractions, especially in groups. As for problems with many causes. Repeat! Try again excluding the previous ones.


The technique was the idea of Sakichi Toyoda. The first application was by Toyota, to perfection their manufacturing process. After the second world war Toyota was crippled by the war; now it is the biggest car manufacturer on the world. The 5 whys technique was/is one cornerstone of their success.

I think that the technique is very powerful and the pros outweigh the cons. I use it very often and I encourage you to try!

Call on Action

  • Try the technique on at least 5 problems!

Your man,

Gaius Wolf