Five Whys and its sister Five Hows is a brainstorming tool that drives you to the reasons behind something happening when it is not obvious (5 Whys problem solving) or a desired outcome (5 Hows strategy). 

Yellow Belt article

What is 5 Whys

Businesses are very often presented with problems where the solution is not immediately obvious.

5 Whys provides a methodology for using the experience of managers and staff to identify possible reasons for the problem rising and to identify solutions to those various reasons.

The same technique can also be used as a 5 Hows approach to working out the best way to do something.

5 Whys follows the sort of logic in the example below.  .

Image result for 5 whys

(Source: Google image) 

In this example, the problem is that we lost the kingdom.  Why did that happen?  The root cause of the loss of the kingdom can be traced back to a lack of nails!  Notice also the 5 steps (Whys) forcing us to drill down further than the first couple of plausible answers but not the root cause which has to be the thing that changes to prevent it happening again in the future.  One might also do another 5 Whys on why there aren’t enough nails.

How to do 5 whys

  • 5 whys starts with writing down the problem at hand and asking yourself why has this problem come about.
    • Example: There is a growing puddle of water on the floor: Why
  • From there we develop a number of alternative possibilities for the problem coming about or decide that the branch has come to a dead end and is not the reason.
    • Alternative Why 1. There may be a broken pipe: Why
    • Alternative Why 2 Rain may have entered: Why
    • Alternative Why 3 Someone has spilled water: Why Conclusion –  dead end because the puddle is growing and no one is pouring more water
  • Then we ask ourselves for each of these possibilities, why might these have come about.
    • Alternative Why 2.1 Roof is dripping: Why
  • And so on for 5 cycles of questions.
    • Alternative Why 2.1.1 roof has a hole in it: Why
      • Alternative Why there was a big storm: Why Conclusion The problem was a once off storm so fixing the roof should fix the problem.
  • Strictly speaking, it is not necessary to go to five levels of Whys but it is important that the group working on the process should drill down beyond just the first level of fairly superficial Whys and really tease out if they have a complete set of candidate solutions to the problem.

5 Hows works in the same fashion except that we ask ourselves how something might come about.


Let’s do a practical example of the 5 Hows first in writing here and then showing the diagram that Maps this particular project paragraph.

As we work through this, you will begin to see references to the various recipes and Tools in 12Faces. This drives home how the 12Faces components can be practically applied to improving your business.  

Let’s set ourselves a question of how do we increase our profit? The second level of Hows probably cover the three main areas that contribute to profit; income, variable costs, overhead expenses.

1. Increase our income: How

1.1 Increase sales volume: How

1.1.1 Increase marketing: How Make more customer contact to generate leads: How

1.2 Increase sales prices: How

1.2.1 introduce luxury version of product: How

1.3 Increase production: How

1.3.1 Identify and manage production bottlenecks – Theory of Constraints (TOC) Tool: How
Go to the Skills Module introduction: Theory of Constraints (TOC)

1.3.2 Change from supply-push to demand-pull: How

1.3.3 Identify surplus capacity and sell it: How

1.4 Improve accounts receivable collection: How

1.4.1 Better monitor and follow up overdue accounts: How

1.4.2 Get partial payments for work in progress completed (e.g. when building a house, get paid for each stage): How

2. Reduce Variable Costs: How

2.1 Decrease purchase price of components: How

2.1.1 Quantity discounts for buying larger amounts: How

2.1.2 Change suppliers: How

2.1.3 Go out to tender for best price: How

2.2 Reduce waste: How

2.2.1 Reduce the number of defective parts we produce: How Red bins to collect and visual inspection to remove root causeL How

2.2.2 Look at the other six types of waste to see what can be removed (Seven Types of Waste Tool): How
Go to the Skills Module introduction

3. Reduce overhead expenses: how

3.1 Reduce surplus inventory tying up cash: How

3.2 Cut out local optima (Local Optima Problem Tool):How

3.2.1  Convert to demand-pull rather than supply-push: How

3.2.2 Reduce work in progress typing up cash: How

Numbering for Convenience

You can see from the example above, that there can quickly be a lot of options. 

When working with a group, it becomes tedious to use the full wording when speaking of an issue.

To overcome this, we encourage you to number each issue then you only need the number to refer to it.

How much easier is it to refer to the following from above as 1.4.2 than the full working;

1.4.2 Get partial payments for work in progress completed (e.g. when building a house, get paid for each stage): How

This approach to numbering allows you to add levels easily.

Alternatively, you can use the following style;

100 ->110 /120 / 130 -> 111 /112 /113 /114, 121 /122, 131

If you are drilling down to 5 levels (it is 5 Whys after all), your first level might be 10000.

the choice of a number scheme is up to you.  


As you can see from the example above, it quickly gets complicated building the 5 Whys.

Most often it will best be done on a white board or in a computer Mind map so that it looks like the following:

 Image result for 5 whys

 (Source: Google image)

The best reason to use a mind map is that it is very each to drag and drop issues in different places. Most often, your mind map will ‘evolve’ out of the discussion and you will find many  times when you want to move around earlier issues as the picture becomes clearer in your mind. It is easily updated as you progress towards a solution.

At any point, you can mark the current most important activity (typically the Constraint and/or Critical Path activity). That way, you will find yourselves always focusing on the most important issues for each level. The constraint path can be boxed and coloured differently in the Mindmap software to make it stand out. 

Mind mapping will also allow you to link several issues together with a flexible piece of software “string” as a way of grouping things without moving them

There is plenty of free mind mapping software around.  We use Mindomo because it can be shared in real time with team members in other locations and work on mobile and desktop devices.

Link to Mindomo software.

Picking a Solution(s)

When you get to the end of how far you can go with a particular line of thought in a 5 Whys, it’s a good opportunity to indicate a solution to that particular Why.

If you put down a solution for each of the branches that come out of the 5 Whys, you get quite a large number of alternative solutions.

Many of the branches of 5 Whys will turn out to have the same solution (e.g. cleaning the working environment to remove dust).  Clearly these can then be grouped together as one potential solution to the exercise.

Not all of the branches in the 5 Whys have equal probability of solving the problem at hand. It would be productive to identify the most likely solution-branches based on your group’s experience and knowledge. If you’re working on paper you could use a highlighter to highlight this branch.  If you’re using computer software you could move it to the top or put a priority order on it.  This is an application of the 80/20 principle of ranking the various 5 Whys alternatives by the degree of their impact.
Go to the Skills Module introduction: SM2.0 80/20 Sales Growth; Double Sales, Triple Profits

5 Why Team

When you do a 5 Why root cause analysis, you want all the necessary expertise in the room with you.

If you are a small business, don’t carry out the 5 Whys analysis on your own.

An individual doing a 5 Why Analysis:

  • May come up with plausible solutions that are possibly the correct ones.
  • A team approach is more likely to canvas a wider range of potential solutions.


  • Persons with a wide range of experience and seniority in the organisation.
  • Persons who are actually working in the area where the problems arise.
  • They are the people most familiar with the process and the most likely to know the solutions.


Senior Management are querying why the painting on metal fabrication has got spots in it.

Senior Management’s conclusion – that dust is the cause.
Painting Team member concludes – the metal is wet from cutting fluid when it goes to the painting stage.

Senior Managers are not exposed to the real world of the Paint Shop floor. They would overlook this possibility.

Have your floor staff offered solutions to problems in the past?
It doesn’t mean that they don’t know the solution.

  • Have you asked them for a solution?
    • They might never have actually turned their mind to solving a problem.
    • They have learnt various ways of working around the problem without thinking to fix it.

In their mind, it might be management’s job to fix problems! Worse, you might have trained them to think that!

Get your work face people engaged, you will be amazed at what they can offer.

You have found your root cause:

  • Revisit the Critical Path (5 steps)
  • Get your team to revisit the path to make sure it was not chosen with:
    • A desire “not to rock the boat”.
    • A desire to find a speedy solution.
  • Make sure the senior people have not dampened the desire of more junior people to contribute.
  • Encourage the more senior people to listen and get the benefit of the junior people.
  • Once the discussion appears to have run its course have them contribute their ideas.
  • Gain as many ideas as possible, into the analysis, before the more powerful voices in the room make suggestions.
  • After that the junior people will have a tendency to go quiet.

Jump Start the Problem Listing

Sometimes, it is just not clear how to get started with identifying the problems.  Also, if the team has not worked together before on a 5 Whys, there is a learning curve.

In this type of situation, we make the first list of Whys;

  • Who” covers people issues
  • What” is effected and maybe what is not as that can also be informative.
  • When” covers time related issues
  • Where” covers location related issues
  • How” covers thing like how it manifests and possible known causal reasons
  • How Much” covers size, frequency and cost related issues and
  • Why” might cover some Why reasons that you already speculate on.  However, don’t stop just with these as there might be other issues and reasons not yet obvious to you at the outset of the planning session

Practical Issues

There are other practical issues you should be aware of if you are going to use 5 Whys so that you get he best out of the technique.

1. Deviations

There are several “red herrings” that someone working with 5 Whys might follow. These could lead to incorrect, or less useful, root cause solutions.

Refraining Statements:

          • Limit the likelihood of reaching a root cause solution.
          • Offer an “excuse” for not continuing the analysis any further to find the root cause.

“Why people did not turn up to a Festival?”

          • A refraining statement might be “that it was raining”.
          • This would be a red herring if tickets were sold in advance and ticket sales were down.
          • Sales should have been going well before the rainy day, if everything was on track.
          • The right track to the root cause here is the fact that ticket sales were down, not that it was a rainy day.

Reflective Statements:

“Blame someone else”.
It is very easy when analysing the root causes of the problem to argue that it is someone else’s fault.
If this wasn’t a principle contributor, you would fail to get to the root cause.


“A restaurant experiences a drop in trade.”

          • They might argue that “a new restaurant has started up” is the reason for the fall in their sales.
          • If they had persisted with the analysis, they might have found that the quality of their food had dropped.
          • That was the real root cause.

Tangential Statements:

          • May seem related to the problem at first glance.
          • May end up somewhat related.
          • May not lead to the root cause but be useful leading to other problems in your system.
          • Because of this they are worth keeping in the mix for now.
            • But
          • Focus your main attention, now, on the critical path which leads to the root cause.

Detractor Statements

The Reflective, Refraining and Tangential Statements may lead the 5 Why Analysis down the wrong path.
They do this based on a misunderstanding of the solution to the problem.

Detractor Statements:

          • Lead the analysis down the wrong path based on a desire to abandon the problem.
          • Are potential solutions to the problem which are irrelevant to the problem.
          • Are emotion-laden statements:
            • They reinforce the existence of the problem.
            • Do not provide any suggestion on how to solve the problem.


By saying “things aren’t built like they used to be” may be a comment of fact but doesn’t move you towards a solution.

It might be a malicious effort by people to hide some part of their “empire” which is at fault:

          • They throw in potential solutions to the root cause.
          • This takes the review team in a direction other than towards the failing of their part of the “empire”.

2. The Aligners

Aligners are steps towards solving the root cause which support the direction in which you are travelling.
These include Supporting Statements, Banding Statements and Critical Path Responses.

Supporting Statements:

          • Do not lead the discussion further towards the next step in the solution process.
          • Tend to reinforce the original problem identified.
          • May not show a path to the resolution of the problem.
          • May be helpful in reassuring you that you are on the “right track”.
          • Do not actually contribute anything to the solution themselves.
            • They are more of a comfort than a solution.


“A restaurant experiences a drop in trade.”

Supporting Statement that supports the fact the food is not as good as it used to be:

          • An increase in numbers of poor reviews on Trip Advisor.
          • This might be contributing to the lack of popularity of the restaurant. 
          • It is not the reviews that are causing the problem.
          • The problem lies in the quality of the food getting the poor reviews.
          • The root cause is poor food quality rather than Trip Advisor.

Banding Statements:

          • Are similar to a Supporting Statement.
          • Are more correlated to the particular “Why” level answer being sort or discussed.
          • Tend to give an upper and/or lower boundary to the problem without identifying the problem.


          • You could say that red widgets are always at fault and blue widgets are never at fault.
            • This is due to the nature of the production of those widgets.
          • However, yellow widgets are faulty at random intervals.
          • The knowledge about the red and blue widgets doesn’t contribute to the knowledge about the yellow widgets.
          • It does help give boundaries to the issue by declaring that not all widgets are a problem.
          • You would go on down the yellow widget track to the next “5 Why” steps and identify that the problem is (e.g.) in the pigment used.

Critical Path:

Readers familiar with Gantt Charts will know that the Critical Path is the fastest way to completing a project.

A purist would say there should only be one “root” cause to a particular problem.
In reality, there might be more than one substantial contributor.

          • We take up to 5 series of steps in the “5 Whys” which leads us to the likely root cause.
          • This series of steps is the “Critical Path”. 
          • It is the fastest solution to the problem.

Even if there is only one root cause, the process is valuable in showing:

          • Other weaknesses.
          • Expanding your understanding of the issues.

3. Pseudo Solutions

Look as though they might be a valid solution to the problem.
They do not address and identify the real root cause.

“A restaurant experiences a drop in trade.”

          • Poor ingredients might be blamed.
          • Ingredients are a pseudo root cause if the real root cause is poor menu selection.

Either of them is plausible:

          • They both refer to the food.
          • They both might benefit from either mental and/or practical experimentation.
          • Watch what happens when you change each of them.

Pseudo Solutions are root cause solutions that seem to be plausible but turn out not to be.

Moving Toward a Solution

Run down through the “5 Whys”.
Step 1:

          • Collect as many alternative reasons for the problem that you can.
          • Carefully analyse these and eliminate any “red herrings” as discussed above.
          • The one left is the one that is the most likely to be the principal problem.

Place this on your Critical Path.

The one that you place on your Critical Path is the one that you take to steps 2, 3, 4 & 5 (if necessary to go the full length).

          • You are not finding the root cause as you progress down this Critical Path?
          • Go back to the first step and consider the other alternatives.
          • Look for what might be the next best possible solution at the first step.

Then add steps 2 – 5 to that root.

The Theory of Constraints teaches us that there are only 1 or 2 main restrictions on most problems.
Go to the Skills Module introduction: Theory of Constraints (TOC)

To progress as quickly as possible, focus on the likely main problem “branch” of the “5 Why” analysis.
Take this as far as you can towards a solution.

For speedy solutions:

          • Move down the “most likely” Critical Path.
          • Always keep in mind not to put on a set of “blinkers” that cause you to find a solution that “you wanted to find”.


Is to use an analytical method to determine the most likely root cause.

You can then have the satisfaction of knowing that your gut told you that this was a plausible solution.

Too Many Steps

Are you progressing past 5 steps to begin to narrow down the root cause to the problem?

The identification of the original problem has not been close enough.


“A restaurant experiences a drop in trade”.

In place of trade let’s say that Profit was dropping.
There could be a few reasons for that happening.
Each of them might have a legitimate root cause.

          1. You are spending too much on ingredients.
          2. The economy is in a downturn.

To date we have been talking about Sales Volume being down.
Take the highest level cause you can find root causes for.

Going through too many steps to find a root cause?
Narrow down the definition of the original problem.

5 Hows Variation for Planning

In the same way a 5 Whys analysis can turn up reasons for a problem, a 5 Hows Planning session can identify all of the issues that have to be covered for a plan to progress.

For example, if you have to install a new photocopier, a team can quickly do a 5 How mindmap on all the things that need to be done and how to do them.

The first layer would include “100 choose a device”. 

In turn, subordinates to that might include;

      • 110 scope out the necessary functions and volume capacities like scanning, copying, emailing etc
      • 120 get prices and delivery dates
      • 130 identify other needs like power, space, air conditioning, noise levels etc




Go to the article: 5 Whys and The Sales Funnel


Other Related Readings

5 Whys Meets Sales Funnel

80/20 Principle and the Theory of Constraints

12Faces Mission Statement


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