Ever attempt to solve a problem that has supposedly been solved multiple times before? This happens when the challenge root cause isn’t identified. Employ the “Five Why” method to more closely identify the root cause(s) for a problem.

Magnifying glass enhancing the text on a sheet of white paper frequently asked questions

This method is very similar to the way a curious 3 year old incessantly asks “why?” to everyday, semi-obvious, observations. As questions continue to pile in, you eventually find a question you can’t answer – this is the question worth investigating and what we’re after with the “Five Why” method.


How Does Five Why Work?

The Five Why method of problem identification works by forcing the continued deep dive into problem identification, and not pursuing the first or second challenge statement to solve. We usually find the unknown question about five questions into interrogation.

The first step in solving a problem is having a problem. Head over to “Key Elements of a Strong Problem Statement”. Utilize the “How Might We…” method to generate strong opportunities to solve using five why.

When the initial problem statement is established (or first indication that something is wrong), ask “Why is this happening?” or “What is this caused by?”.


A young boy clothed in a dress shirt, bow tie, and orange pants wearing suspenders looking confused as to ask "why?".

The method outline is as follows,

  • Initial problem
    • Why?
      • Why?
        • Why?
          • Why?
            • Why?

Here’s an example of identifying the root cause of a broken fence.

  • Problem: Broken fence
    • Why? Car smashed into the fence.
      • Why? Driver lost control around curve.
        • Why? road was iced over.
          • Why? Excess water left on curve during a freeze.
            • Why? Water did not drain after rain

In the above example, the broken fence is simply a symptom of a much larger problem! If we stopped our problem solving at only repairing the fence, there would be a chance the problem would reappear. Above all, this is a good exercise in seeing beyond only the process you control. For instance, the root cause was poor drainage on the road leading to a serious safety issue to drivers. Generated “why’s” can be organized into a Fishbone Diagram to communicate the cause and effect relationship.

Many red, yellow, green, purple, and blue plastic cone game board pieces assembled randomly to form a creative mosaic.

To take these Five Why questions to the next level and begin solving, try using the “How Might We…” approach to redefine the problem statements into solvable questions?


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