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The 5 Whys: Team Approach to Finding Root Cause

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The 5 Why’s For Root Cause Analysis


You can use 5 Y to troubleshoot, go deeper with a recurring problem, for quality improvement, and basic problem solving.

It is most effective when used to resolve simple or moderately difficult problems. For complex or critical problems, you will need to add in other problem-solving methods like using the A3 or PDCA.

The 5 Y can be used on an issue that has one layer of involvement, with multiple layers, however, the greater complexity will require other types of problem solving.

This simple technique is masterful at getting to the root cause of a problem and is quickly and easily implemented. Consider it your first line of defense when thinking through problems. Use this approach, coach your team to use this approach, before you attempt to develop a solution.

Because of its simplicity, this tool is quite flexible and is used in the  analysis phase of the Six Sigma quality improvement methodology.

How to Use the 5 Y

1. Assemble a Team

Your team should be comprised of individuals with firsthand knowledge of the problem. Identify a facilitator, who will keep the team focused.

2. Define the Problem

Observe the problem in action, whenever possible. Have the team discuss and write a brief, clearly stated problem statement that is agreed upon. For example, “The rollout of Project X did not meet the deadline or quality requirements,” “The admissions team missed its target of daily assessments.”

Using a board or large flipchart paper, write out the statement, leaving room to write in the “why?”

3. Ask Why?

Ask your team why the problem is occurring. For example, “Why isn’t the admissions team meeting their daily assessments?”

Asking “Why?” is simple, yet, the answer requires thoughtful discussion. You need observable, factual answers. This is not the time to guess or interpret what is happening.

The 5 Y’s is not an exercise in deductive reasoning; creating possible causes that can create more confusion as you discuss “what if” scenarios.

As your team comes up with responses, record them on the board/ paper using one word or short phrases.

4. Ask “Why?” Four More Times (or any many as needed to get to the root cause)

For each of the answers that you come up with, keep asking “Why” to each answer.

Caution that you do not overthink the answers; move quickly from one question to the next, so that you drill down and get a full picture of the situation.

Flowchart Example

Problem Statement: The admissions team missed its target of daily assessments.

You can see from this example, the reasons that were uncovered weren’t what you may have thought, yet, this team uncovered some of the unintended consequences of the previous merger and restructuring. Now they have a direction to go in to find a solution based on facts and observations and not guesses by a management team that is several levels away from the problem.



This problem solving technique does work well by itself and is a great “go-to” when you first think about a problem. I highly recommend taking the Lean Leadership Certificate course that teaches a more detailed approach to solving multi-layered and complex problems.

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