Problem solving with The 5 Whys Technique

5 Whys technique – a technique for identifying the exact root cause of a problem to determine the appropriate solution.

It is best used for solving human interaction problems. Because most problems have a human element to them, this technique traces “technical problems” back to their human causes, where possible.

The 5 Whys technique is one that advocates asking why as many times as you need to until you get to the root cause of the problem. Stop asking why when you have arrived at a probable root cause of the problem, which may come before or after the 5th why. The technique requires that you remain objective all the way.

This technique follows these steps:

  • Write the problem on the centre of a flip chart
  • Ask the participant(s): Why do you think the problem occurred?
    • Capture idea 1
  • Ask the participant(s): Why do you think Idea 1 occurred?
    • Capture idea 2
  • Ask the participant(s): Why do you think Idea 2 occurred?
    • …on and on it goes until you get to the root cause.

If more than one idea is proposed as the cause of the problem, explore each idea (or path) until you arrive at its root cause.

complete one path before moving on to the next;

explore other paths may not provide additional insights. With complex problems, there’s likely to be more than one single cause – this is where combining the technique with the Ishikawa Diagram comes in handy.

The principle behind it is this: instead of treating symptoms, why not go for the root cause? Symptoms often mask the cause of problems and the 5 Whys technique is an effective way of identifying that root cause.

Beyond helping the business analyst understand the root cause of problems, the 5 Whys technique can also be used to understand what your customer is really saying.


  • 5 Whys is best used during brainstorming sessions – get everyone to contribute ideas that will lead to identifying the root cause of the problem
  • Invite only participants that are knowledgeable about the problem domain
    • generate insightful responses that will aid arriving at the root cause.
    • ensure that everyone is in agreement about what the root cause of the problem is.
  • As soon as the root cause is identified, recommendations that tackle the problem as quickly as possible should be drawn up.
    • focus on the root cause as well as the whole chain of events that led up to the problem.
    • communicate the improvements to all stakeholders so that the benefits of the exercise are clearly visible
  • There are often more than one possible cause of a problem.
    • where one path leads before switching to another.
    • use voting to arrive at a consensus.
  • Focus .on what caused the problem and not what to do to fix the problem


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