The Five Whys Technique
In a Word When confronted with a problem, have you ever stopped and asked
“why”ﬁve times? The Five Whys technique is a simple but powerful way to
troubleshoot problems by exploring cause-and-effect relationships.
For every effect there is a cause. But the results chain between the two is fairly long
and becomes ﬁner as one moves from inputs to activities, outputs, outcome, and
In results-based management,
the degree of control one enjoys decreases
Inputs, activities, and outputs are within the direct control of an intervention's management. An
outcome is what an intervention can be expected to achieve and be accountable for. An impact is
what an intervention is expected to contribute to.
Results-based management is a life-cycle management philosophy and approach that emphasizes
results in integrated planning, implementing, monitoring, reporting, learning, and changing.
Demonstrating results is important for credibility, accountability, and continuous learning, and to
inform decision-making and resource allocation.
©Asian Development Bank 2017
O. Serrat, Knowledge Solutions, DOI 10.1007/978-981-10-0983-9_32
higher up the chain and the challenge of monitoring and evaluating correspondingly
In due course, when a problem appears, the temptation is strong to blame
others or external events. Yet, the root cause of problems often lies closer
For Want of a Nail
For want of a nail the shoe is lost;
For want of a shoe the horse is lost;
For want of a horse the rider is lost;
For want of a rider the battle is lost;
For want of a battle the kingdom is lost;
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
The Five Whys Technique
When looking to solve a problem, it helps to begin at the end result, reﬂect on what
caused that, and question the answer ﬁve times.
This elementary and often
effective approach to problem solving promotes deep thinking through questioning,
and can be adapted quickly and applied to most problems.
Most obviously and
directly, the Five Whys technique relates to the principle of systematic
problem-solving: without the intent of the principle, the technique can only be a
shell of the process. Hence, there are three key elements to effective use of the Five
Whys technique: (i) accurate and complete statements of problems,
honesty in answering the questions, (iii) the determination to get to the bottom of
problems and resolve them. The technique was developed by Sakichi Toyoda for
the Toyota Industries Corporation.
Five is a good rule of thumb. By asking “why”ﬁve times, one can usually peel away the layers of
symptoms that hide the cause of a problem. But one may also ﬁnd one needs to ask “why”fewer
times, or conversely more.
Root cause analysis is the generic name of problem-solving techniques. The basic elements of
root causes are materials, equipment, the man-made or natural environment, information, mea-
surement, methods and procedures, people, management, and management systems. Other tools
can be used if the Five Whys technique does not intuitively direct attention to one of these. They
include barrier analysis, change analysis, causal factor tree analysis, and the Ishikawa (or ﬁshbone)
By repeating “why”ﬁve times, the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear.
308 32 The Five Whys Technique
The Five-Whys exercise is vastly improved when applied by a team and there are
ﬁve basic steps to conducting it:
•Gather a team and develop the problem statement in agreement. After this is
done, decide whether or not additional individuals are needed to resolve the
•Ask the ﬁrst “why”of the team: why is this or that problem taking place? There
will probably be three or four sensible answers: record them all on a ﬂip chart or
whiteboard, or use index cards taped to a wall.
•Ask four more successive “whys,”repeating the process for every statement on
the ﬂip chart, whiteboard, or index cards. Post each answer near its “parent”.
Follow up on all plausible answers. You will have identiﬁed the root cause when
asking “why”yields no further useful information. (If necessary, continue to ask
questions beyond the arbitrary ﬁve layers to get to the root cause.)
•Among the dozen or so answers to the last asked “why”look for systemic
causes of the problem. Discuss these and settle on the most likely systemic
cause. Follow the team session with a debrieﬁng and show the product to others
to conﬁrm that they see logic in the analysis.
•After settling on the most probable root cause of the problem and obtaining
conﬁrmation of the logic behind the analysis, develop appropriate corrective
actions to remove the root cause from the system. The actions can (as the case
demands) be undertaken by others but planning and implementation will beneﬁt
from team inputs.
Define the problem:
Why is it happening?
Why is that?
Why is that?
Note: If the last answer is
something you cannot
control, go back to the
Why is that?
Why is that?
Fig. Five whys worksheet. Source Author
The Five Whys technique has been criticized as too basic a tool to analyze root
causes to the depth required to ensure that the causes are ﬁxed. The reasons for this
•The tendency of investigators to stop at symptoms, and not proceed to lower
level root causes.
•The inability of investigators to cast their minds beyond current information and
•Lack of facilitation and support to help investigators ask the right questions.
•The low repeat rate of results: different teams using the Five Whys technique
have been known to come up with different causes for the same problem.
Clearly, the Five Whys technique will suffer if it is applied through deduction
only. The process articulated earlier encourages on-the-spot veriﬁcation of answers
to the current “why”question before proceeding to the next, and should help avoid
ADB (2007) Guidelines for preparing a design and monitoring framework. Manila
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views of the Asian Development Bank, its Board of Directors, or the countries they represent.
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310 32 The Five Whys Technique