Five Whys (5 Whys)

What is the five whys (5 whys) method?

The "Five Whys" (or 5 Whys) method is a problem-solving technique that seeks to get to the root cause of a problem by repeatedly asking the question "Why?" The principle behind the method is that identifying the root cause of an issue is crucial in ensuring that problems are genuinely resolved, rather than just addressing their symptoms.

The process works as follows:

  • Begin with a clear statement of the problem.
  • Ask "Why?" to identify the cause of the problem.
  • If the answer provides a new cause, ask "Why?" again to drill down further.
  • Repeat the process until you've asked "Why?" five times or until you've identified a root cause that can be acted upon.

Why is the 5 whys method so useful for product managers?

The 5 Whys method is particularly useful for Product Managers (PMs) for several reasons:

  • Root Cause Analysis: PMs often grapple with problems that manifest as symptoms of deeper issues. By identifying and addressing the root cause instead of merely dealing with the symptoms, PMs can develop more effective and long-lasting solutions.

  • Enhances Decision Making: PMs make countless decisions regarding product features, user experience, technical debt, and more. The 5 Whys helps in making informed decisions by revealing the underlying factors at play.

  • Improves Communication: The process of systematically asking "Why?" encourages clear and focused discussions among cross-functional teams. This clarity helps in aligning everyone around the core issue and potential solutions.

  • Reduces Recurrence of Issues: Addressing a problem at its source reduces the chances of the issue resurfacing in the future. This is especially crucial for PMs who aim for continuous improvement in their products.

  • Promotes a Culture of Curiosity: Using the 5 Whys nurtures a culture where teams are encouraged to be inquisitive and dig deeper into issues. Over time, this can instill a mindset of proactive problem-solving across the organization.

  • Saves Time and Resources: By tackling problems at their root, PMs can often prevent the need for more extensive and costly fixes later on. This proactive approach can save significant time and resources in the long run.

  • Prioritization: Understanding the root causes can help PMs prioritize which issues need immediate attention and which can be deferred, ensuring that resources are allocated effectively.

  • User-Centricity: Many product decisions need to center around the user. If a particular feature isn't used or there's a recurrent problem users face, the 5 Whys can help unearth the real reasons behind user behavior, leading to more user-centric solutions.

  • Builds Trust with Stakeholders: When stakeholders, including executives or investors, see that a PM isn't just providing surface-level solutions but is genuinely invested in understanding and addressing core issues, it builds trust and confidence in the PM's capabilities.

  • Enhances Continuous Learning: The method promotes a mindset of learning and adaptation. Each time the 5 Whys is employed, the team learns more about the product, users, or processes, leading to cumulative knowledge that can be invaluable for future decisions.

For PMs, whose roles often sit at the nexus of business, technology, and user experience, the ability to delve deep into problems and derive actionable insights is paramount. The 5 Whys method provides a straightforward yet powerful tool to achieve this.

Where did the 5 whys method come from?

The 5 Whys method originated from the Toyota Production System, which is the precursor to what is commonly known today as Lean Manufacturing. Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Industries, is credited with developing the technique, and it became an integral part of Toyota's problem-solving and continuous improvement processes.

The goal of the Toyota Production System was to design efficient, waste-minimizing production processes. To achieve this, it was crucial to identify and address the root causes of problems rather than just their symptoms. The 5 Whys method emerged as a straightforward yet effective tool to drill down to the root cause of a problem quickly.

Toyota then went on to institutionalize this approach. Taiichi Ohno, one of the primary architects of the Toyota Production System, described the 5 Whys method as "the basis of Toyota's scientific approach" and emphasized the importance of understanding the root cause of problems to improve production processes.

While the method started in manufacturing, its simplicity and effectiveness led to its adoption in various fields, including business processes, service industries, software development, and more. It's now a staple in many problem-solving and continuous improvement frameworks, including Lean and Six Sigma.

A step-by-step guide to a 5 whys analysis

Performing a 5 Whys analysis is a systematic process aimed at uncovering the root cause of a problem. Here's a step-by-step guide to help you conduct a successful 5 Whys analysis:

  1. Assemble the Team: Gather a team of people who are familiar with the issue and the process involved. These should ideally be individuals directly impacted by or responsible for the situation.

  2. Clearly Define the Problem: Start with a clear and concise statement of the problem. Ensure that the problem is specific, measurable, and based on factual information.

  3. Ask the First "Why": Begin the investigation by asking, "Why did this problem occur?" Let the team provide their insights and perspectives. Encourage open discussion.

  4. Drill Down Further: For the answer to the first "Why?", ask another "Why?" to delve deeper. Continue this pattern of asking "Why?" to each subsequent answer.

  5. Identify the Root Cause: Typically, by the time you reach the fifth "Why?", you should be close to identifying the root cause. However, in some cases, it might take fewer or more than five questions. The goal is to ensure the cause identified can be acted upon and is not just another symptom.

  6. Document the Process: Write down the problem, each of the "Whys" and their corresponding answers. This documentation is useful for future reference, to share insights with others, and to validate that the process was thorough.

  7. Develop Actionable Solutions: Once the root cause is identified, brainstorm solutions that can prevent the problem from recurring. Ensure that the solutions proposed directly address the root cause and not just the symptoms.

  8. Implement the Solutions: Assign responsibility for each solution to relevant team members. Create an action plan with timelines, required resources, and milestones.

  9. Monitor Results: After implementing the solutions, monitor the situation to ensure the problem does not recur. If the problem persists, revisit the 5 Whys analysis to determine if there was a missed aspect or if there's more than one root cause.

  10. Review and Reflect: After a period, gather the team to reflect on the effectiveness of the solutions implemented. Discuss what worked, what didn't, and any new insights gained. This iterative learning is essential for continuous improvement.

Remember, the 5 Whys method is more about the underlying philosophy of digging deep into problems rather than the specific number of times you ask "Why?". The key is to be persistent, curious, and methodical in the pursuit of genuine root causes and actionable solutions.

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