Getting to the root cause with the 5 Whys

question mark -  5 whys

The 5 Whys is a great heuristic to get to the root cause of any problem.

When you run into an issue, all you have to do is ask yourself “Why?” five times and you’ll most likely get to the source of the problem.

For instance, let’s say that your laptop is busted.

  1. Why? Because I dropped it on the floor.
  2. Why? Because when I picked it up, my hands were slippery.
  3. Why? Because I had butter on my hands.
  4. Why? Because when I eat toast, I pick up the butter with my hands to spread it.
  5. Why? Because I don’t own knives.

Buy some knives!

That’s a facetious (and pretty creative, right?) example that I just thought of. The point is that if you ask yourself “Why?” five times, you’ll come upon the root cause of the problem, and it may not always be what you expect it to be.

By getting to the root cause of problems, you’ll be able to address the actual problem rather than just alleviating its symptoms.

Like many other excellent business techniques, the 5 Whys got its start in the Toyota Motor Corporation during the evolution of its manufacturing processes. The company used the 5 Whys to pinpoint the root cause of car manufacturing issues.

This technique can be used in many different situations.

If an employee isn’t performing up to your expectations, it may be due to a cause that you’re not aware of, and the 5 Whys might help you discover that cause.

If your company isn’t growing fast enough, the 5 Whys might help determine how to spark that growth.

On the flip side, the 5 Whys can also be used to learn why things are working well.

If an employee is doing well, the 5 Whys might be able to help you learn why that is, and you can apply those learnings to help others improve their performance.

If your company is seeing hockey-stick growth, the 5 Whys may help determine the cause of that growth.

Next time you really want to dig into why something is happening, give the 5 Whys a try.

What are your thoughts about the 5 Whys? Have you ever used this technique, or do you know of situations where you might? I’d love to hear from you. Write your thoughts in the comments, tweet at me @mikewchan, or email me at

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