The 5 Whys

About This Technique

When something goes wrong, we tend to see it as a crisis and seek to blame. Better to see it as a learning opportunity, get to the root cause, and develop a specific action plan for resolving and preventing it.

A 5 Whys session is a classic method for getting to the root cause of any problem in business or life.


Watch this 6-minute video for an overview of the technique:

History of the 5 Whys

The Five Whys methodology originated in Japan and is credited to Sakichi Toyoda, one of the founders of Toyota. For decades, the company used the practice of asking "why?" five times in succession as a means of getting to the root of a particular manufacturing problem.

Flow of a 5 Whys Session




Key Rules for a 5 Whys Session

  1. Involve the right people in the discussion
    • In the TPS, even the lowest paid employees are encouraged to provide input on issues they encounter. Front-line employees are essential to the discussion and should be encouraged to speak up
  2. Ask the right question to start—it should be specific
  3. Don't place blame on any person or team. Uncover the systemic root cause that caused the issue
  4. Stay focused on a specific line of inquiry without getting too focused on technical or ancillary issues
  5. Develop clear CTAs with owners for each "Why," and share the analysis widely

Additional Guidelines

  • Focus on the process, not the number of Whys. It usually takes somewhere between 4 and 7 whys.
  • 5 Whys analyses don't always have to be done in a group setting. Sometimes, a single individual can just poll various team members to determine the root cause. This is what good product managers do.