The 5 Whys

Published: May 7, 2019

When a problem occurs, it is easy to make quick assumptions about why it happened instead of taking the time to dig deeper and uncover the actual root cause. Making such assumptions is not an ideal way to discover the cause-and-effect relationship of a problem and quite frankly can be a waste of time. Rather, using the ‘5 Whys’ technique can actually simplify the process and allow you to effectively uncover the actual cause(s) of a problem.

The basis of the 5 Whys technique is to ask the question “Why?” over and over to determine the true symptoms of the problem at hand. The repetition may seem tedious, yet it is crucial as it allows each answer to build on one another, thus forming the basis of the following question. When asking “Why?”, a simple “Yes” or “No” answer will not suffice, rather the question itself demands a thorough and detailed answer — one that provides further insight. With each question and each answer, the solution starts to become more and more clear, until eventually the true root cause is exposed.

As stated in its name, the technique suggests that the question “Why?” should be repeated five times in order to distinguish the underlying cause. Depending on the intensity or intricacy of the problem it may be necessary to ask fewer or more than five questions, although in most cases five is sufficient. In some scenarios, there may be multiple causes to one problem. In this case, repeat the 5 Whys technique multiple times over.

It is recommended to work through this technique by actually writing out the problem so you can describe it completely and so other members of the team are on the same page. Once the initial problem is outlined, ask Why the problem occurred and write down the answer. If the answer does not identify the cause of the problem that you previously wrote down, ask Why again. Continue asking “Why?” until the root cause has been identified and the entire team is in agreement.

By working through the 5 Whys, you will find broken or missing processes within your current systems; these have more or less been the impetus to creating problems in the first place. Once you have identified this disconnect within your systems, you can work to fix current processes or implement new ones and avoid the same problems in the future.


You: “Why are you not closing as much business as you’d like?”

Agent: “Because I am not working with enough prospects.”

You: “Why are you not working with enough prospects?”

Agent: “Because the leads aren’t good.”

You: “Why are the leads not good?”

Agent: “Because none of them answer the phone.”

You: “Why do none of them answer the phone?”

Agent: “I don’t know.” (note: insert my favorite question of all time – “well, if you did know, what do you think the answer would be?”) “Maybe because by the time I call them they have already gone to other websites?”

You: “Why are you not calling them within 5 minutes from the time they register, in accordance with our best practices?”

Agent: “um…..”

The situation above is a silly, yet very realistic example of the 5 Why’s in action.  Here we discovered that the agent’s lack of business is likely due to their lack of honoring a team standard.  Odds are that there is more to the equation, but what a great discovery by just asking why 5 consecutive times.  

Try it out today.  Generally I am not a fan of asking questions that start with “why” as the answers tend to be weaker (weaker the question, weaker the answer).  That said, given that you asking “why” 5 times over, I believe you achieve the desired, stronger answer.

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