01 May

Get to the Root Cause of an Issue With The 5 Why Method


Have you ever been totally stumped by a persistent problem or issue that you couldn’t resolve? Besides overcoming the fixed mindset that it will never be solved, getting at the heart of the matter is critical to moving past these kinds of barriers in our work and lives.

Think, think, and think some more. When an issue presents itself in the form of an immediate or persistent problem, you might feel compelled to ask “why is this happening?” But how often do you get an answer to that question? Sometimes, the “why” question doesn’t produce results for solving problems. It can leave us periled with uncertainty and frustration.

A single why question is often insufficient for solving big problems, especially those that take place within systems or organizations. However, when at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.

Or, in this case, “why” and “why” again.

Why Logo White copy

That’s right, if the answer to your first “why” question didn’t produce results, it’s likely because it hasn’t reached a sufficient enough level of depth to find a root cause, or at least an underlying situation that will leverage a solution to the problem.

Here’s where the Six Sigma Method of Asking 5 Why Questions can come to the rescue:

Once you reach an answer to your first “why” question, or at least some speculation at an answer, you then ask “why” that answer is the case. The resulting second “why” question should get its own answer, which digs deeper into the underlying cause behind the surface-level problem. That answer, in turn, gets questioned with “why is this the case?” and subsequently answered. This problem-solving method continues until you get to five why questions asked and five resulting responses to them.

At the fifth level, you might just find the underlying cause of the main issue at hand. And, if this cause is something within your control, you target addressing that cause in order to effect change with the initial problem.

"WHY" 3D text surrounded by question marks. Part of a series.It kind of reminds you of the idea of six degrees of separation. You know, the notion that everyone in the world is connected somehow about six relationships away? The 5 Why approach gets at the relational connection between issues and their causes to about the fifth degree. Some issues don’t go all the way to the fifth why before the root cause is identified, and some land on an underlying issue that is out of the sphere of control of the questioner. In either case, you can always scour through all of your “whys” in order to find something that’s within your control to address.

Okay, you’d probably like a better example now. So, here goes:

Brittney, an adolescent female, is passing tests in class but failing U.S. History as a grade 7 student. They want to know how to fix the situation, so they ask this question: “Why is Brittney failing?” Thus begins the 5 Why process.

  • Why is Brittney failing U.S. History as a grade 7 student?
    • Because Brittney’s course grade is a 52%
  • Why is Brittney’s course grade a 52%?
    • Because Brittney has passed some tests, but has done no homework all year.
  • Why has Brittney passed some tests, but done no homework all year?
    • Because Brittney engages in classroom learning activities, but prioritizes other outside-school activities over doing her U.S. History homework
  • Why does Brittney engage in learning in class, but prioritize other activities over homework?
    • Because Brittney doesn’t see the value in doing homework assignments when she already understands the content
  • Why doesn’t Brittney see the value in doing homework assignments when she already understands the content?
    • Because she disagrees with the class policy that every student has to do homework, which has strong weight in the course grade, whether they need the extra practice or not

The conclusion of this example is that Brittney is failing the class because she disagrees with a class policy about homework. So, the intervention that might help Brittney here is outside of Brittney’s control and has everything to do with examining the class homework and grading policies. That is something in the sphere of control of the teacher and or school. Now, addressing that root cause can help resolve the issue identified with Brittney, and perhaps other students as well.

So, where will you apply the 5 Why Method to solving issues or problems in your work?