Are You Using The 5 Whys Of Six Sigma To Solve Problems?

by Jessica Zartler / April 28, 2016

We cannot find a solution unless we know the problem. This is the challenge that many managers, companies and organizations spend the most time on - defining the problem.

A heaping amount of work is wasted either on solving problems that may not actually exist, or treating symptoms rather than the root cause of the problem.

So how do we peel through the layers of symptoms to find out the real root cause of a problem? Why do customers keep complaining about the same thing? Why are projects not delivered on time? Why are meetings always so long?

There is a simple but powerful method developed by industrialist, inventor and founder of Toyota Industries, Sakichi Toyoda, that has been used by corporations around the world since the 1970s called the 5 Whys. The method is so successful it has been adopted as part of Kaizen, lean manufacturing and Six Sigma.

This article outlines how to use the 5 Whys, Six Sigma’s Simplest Way to Solve Problems.

Simplicity is revelatory

The best thing about the 5 Whys is that there is not complex statistical analysis, flow charts or diagrams to follow. It is an iterative, interrogative technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationship underlying a problem.

Simply put, as its name implies - just ask “why,” five times. Why five? Toyoda found in his empirical observations in the early days of his manufacturing business, that this is usually the number of iterations required to get to the root of a problem.

How to Perform the 5 Whys of Six Sigma

  1. Write down the specific problem. It helps to formalize and describe it completely. It also helps your team focus on the same problem, make sure they understand it and are clear.
  2. Ask why the problem happens and write the answer below the problem.
  3. Make answers precise, based on fact and knowledge and assess the process, not the people. Untrained facilitators often point towards answers such as not enough time, investments or manpower. These answers could be true, but don’t look to place blame instead, ask why did the process fail?
  4. Once the team agrees on the iterations (it could take fewer or more than five in some cases), don’t look for the solution, find the “counter-measure.” Under Toyoda’s methodology, counter-measures are a set of actions that seek to prevent the problem from arising again rather than a solution, that just addresses the one time situation. Counter-measures are more likely to address the root and prevent the problem from recurring.

Examples in Exploration

Problem A - Your client will not pay for the brochures you printed for them.

  • Why? We delivered them late, so the organization’s event was already over.
  • Why? The print job took much longer than expected.
  • Why? We ran out of printer ink.
  • Why? The ink was all used up on a big, last-minute order.
  • Why? We didn’t have enough ink in stock, so we couldn’t order it quickly.

COUNTER-MEASURE: Find a supplied who can deliver ink at very short notice.


PROBLEM B: The website crashed.

  1. Why? Our database became locked.
  2. Why? We had too many updates and rewrites happening.
  3. Why? We didn’t foresee the amount of traffic to the site and it wasn’t load tested.
  4. Why? Because we don’t have a development process for loading updates to the site.
  5. Why? We’ve never done testing in this area and are reaching new levels of scale.

COUNTER-MEASURE: Investigate the database locking, test for further scaling and develop a process for loading updates.


PROBLEM C: Meetings are taking too long and after a meeting, nothing gets done.

  1. Why? We talk about plans but nothing is assigned or easily documented.
  2. Why? We use Excel or email but it is hard to track and organize.
  3. Why? Our team lacks the proper project management tool to collaborate and track work on one platform.
  4. Why? We don’t have a Taskworld account.

COUNTER-MEASURE: Read How to Have Meetings that Result in Action and sign your team up for its free trial of Taskworld.

The 5 Whys strategy is incredibly simple, but can provide key insights to why a process is breaking down, or it will reveal a lack of process to handle difficulties that arise in a workflow. It is beneficial for troubleshooting, finding the root of a problem and quality improvement initiatives.

If asking “why” does not provide an actionable counter-measure to prevent a future problem from occurring, it’s possible your problem has more than one root cause and you could benefit from a more detailed approach like Root-Cause Analysis. Keep in mind Toyoda’s methodology is best used for simple to moderately-difficult problems.

Remember, don’t look to place blame during the exercise but see what actions can be taken, assign tasks to team members and follow up to make sure the process improvements are put into place.

Because sometimes… the question is more important than the answer.

“If you don’t ask the right questions, you don’t get the right answers. A question asked in the right way often points to its own answer. Asking questions is the ABC of diagnosis. Only the inquiring mind solves problems.” – Edward Hodnett

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