Five Why – Root Cause Problem Solving

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Solve your problems like a 3 year old! Or at least identify the root cause of what you SHOULD be solving!

Ever find yourself attempting to solve a problem that’s been solved multiple times before? This may be happening because the root cause of the challenge wasn’t resolved, and only a symptom was addressed. In this exercise, you will be introduced to the “Five Why” method of more closely identifying the root cause for a problem.

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.


So How Does This 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.

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


The method outline is as follows,

  • Initial problem
    • Why?
      • Why?
        • Why?
          • Why?
            • Why?
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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. This is also a good exercise in seeing beyond only the process you control. In this case, the root cause was poor drainage on the road leading to a serious safety issue to drivers.

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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