Five Why – Root Cause Problem Solving

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?

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?

SIPOC / COPIS Process Mapping

SIPOC is an acronym representing Supplier, Input, Process, Output, Customer and is an effective means of generating a high level process map for the purpose of documenting a process. Also commonly written as COPIS, which puts the customer first and enforces a deeper focus on the customer’s needs over the organization’s process.

When to Use a SIPOC

Example SIPOC Process Map

The purpose of this tool is to identify at a fairly high level, the most relevant five to six steps of a process – this is an effective way to quickly coordinate a team’s activities and focus. If you have a process with steps A, B, C, D, E – and you only want to focus on steps C and D, you quickly map out all steps, A to E, and state that only steps C and D are in scope for this project.

SIPOC is an Acronym meaning,
  • Supplier: Whomever provides the input into the process
  • Input: Material (physical or data) sent to process for action
  • Process: Action placed on the material inputted that must be performed to satisfy the customer’s requirement. This is where the action happens.
  • Output: Resulting transformed material from the process per the customer’s requirement
  • Customer: Process output recipient, may be internal or external. Also defines the requirements for the output. The external customer is the final user that initiated the process, where an internal customer may be someone else within the organization that further refines the output in additional processes for the external customer.

How to Use a SIPOC,

SIPOC Template

A good practice when process mapping is to begin at the customer and essentially answer the below questions. This method of starting at the process end builds a customer centric map potentially reducing the addition of bias into the analysis.

  • Who is the customer?
  • What is the customer requesting?
  • How s this request fulfilled?
  • What materials or information is needed to fulfill the request?
  • Who supplies these materials?

NOTE: It may be useful at the end of creating a SIPOC beginning at the customer, re-write the process beginning with your organization’s process and identify non-value added inputs and processes for improvement or elimination.

While completing a SIPOC,you will likely find multiple processes with multiple inputs on a single map – and this is expected! See the below example on a completed SIPOC for a forged combination wrench.

Combination Wrench SIPOC Example

In the above example, you can quickly see the high level process for creating the wrenches. In this example, you may notice multiple customers including a secondary customer segment, “Metal Recycler”. In this process, you can identify where each output of the process is going by separating the products.

Download the Utilized PowerPoint Template Below!

3D SIPOC – Great for Internal Customer Management

Let’s say you have a very long process with many inputs and outputs throughout and you desire to have more details on your map. In this case, you can use a 3D SIPOC where each column represents a different process (Let’s call these swimlanes). Each of these swimlanes functions just as the previously described SIPOC where there is a supplier, input, process, output, and customer. In this case, the customer of one process, may become the supplier for the next. This is a great tool for managing internal process mapping.

Download the Swimlane SIPOC Template Below!

How Might We…

This magical phrase has completely changed the way I look at a problem! The single greatest mind shift in all of the methods, tools, and processes I’ve learned about resides in these three words, “How Might We…”. The words aren’t “How Can We…” or “How Should we…”, these words are specifically selected to inspire creativity and innovative solutions. “How Might We…” implies whatever you come up with… might not work… and that’s OK! The phrasing helps guide the team into asking the Right questions to tackle their biggest challenges.

A Bit of History,

Developed by Proctor & Gamble in the 1970s, popularized by IDEO (The prolific innovation and design firm), and now you see it mentioned in SPRINT by Jake Knapp (Brilliant process & Highly recommend!) and the Harvard Business Review in “The Secret Phrase Top Innovators Use“. IDEA breaks the phrase down: “HOW” assumes there are solutions out there, “MIGHT” means when we test ideas they might work and they might not, and the “WE” says we’re going to build it together. The “we” may be you and the customer, or it may be the full team, but innovation is a journey best traveled as a group.

Here are some Great Additional Resources,

Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All

Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days

So How Does This Work?

As previously stated, the psychology within the phrase is intentional and is best used after some initial research into the problem and building a source of empathy feedback from people this challenge impacts (This can be learned through employing the “Voice of the Customer” tool). Once you’ve built a notebook of insights on the challenge, begin asking “How Might We…” to various aspects of the insights towards generating many problem statements.

For this tool, I will be walking you through a pitch competition called “The Flipping Finance Challenge” by Indiana Bond Bank, where this tool was successfully deployed in defining and solving a challenge.

Gary, IN provided various challenges and the below three led into my “How Might We…”

  • Becoming a “Smart Region” & National Transportation Hub
  • Matching Housing Stock with Targeted Populations
  • Manager Preserve & Maintain Nature Ecology While Growing

When developing a “How Might We…”, I am a BIG fan of utilizing white boards and sticky notes – pretty much any surface commandeerable for ideation is utilized – and abbreviate the phrase with HMW… placed in the top left corner of each brainstormed problem statement. (I often write HMW by mistake, but it lightens the mood). This will save lots of time and ink, because you’re expected to write it a lot! The below photo illustrates my thought process on building problem statements using HMW.

Sticky Note Storm – Understand Any of This?

The process began with the poster on the left. As insights are generated from empathy and challenge research, any opportunity or challenge found is then rephrased into a HMW statement. Below are a few examples,

HMW reduce the barrier to entry for tech startups?HMW utilize abandoned properties as a “carrot” to attract aspiring tech startups?
HMW transform Gary, IN into a team of regulatory entrepreneurs?HMW utilize Colorado-like resources & Chicago proximity to drive millennial tech growth?
HMW deploy a culture of permission-less innovation?HMW reduce barriers for new company adoption? (Housing cost, attracting talent, technological freedom, evasive entrepreneurs, risk taking, tech-enabled taxing)

Each of the above is an example HMW statement derived from insights or unanswered questions. Once a pile of stickies has been generated, the next step is to affinitize the stickies (This means identify common categories or families to form groups). You can see in the above picture the stickies were affinitized into “Gary = Proving Ground”, “Government Enablement”, and “Attracting “Things” & “People””.

All this work leads to the creation of a redefined problem statement! In this case, the problem statement became,

“How Might We Enable Gary’s Ecosystem To Attract Talent Utilizing Natural Resources (National Park, Dunes, Lake Michigan, Proximity To Chicago) to Become a Tech Start-up Proving Ground?”

NOTE: None of the above steps included ANY solutions or problem solving. In this phase, we only care about defining what challenge the team will be solving. A great thing about redefining the problem this way, is it forces the team to re-examine what really matters to the customer and determining the appropriate customer.

Steps & Supplies,


Every person should have a stack of sticky notes (I prefer 3″ x 3″, but 3″ x 5″ work great) and a thick marker (Sharpie/dry erase). The thick marker forces the team to write clearly and succinct.


  • Write HMW in the upper left corner of a sticky note
  • Read, listen, or watch research on problem and challenge (Must include feedback from the customer’s perspective)
  • Hear something interesting? Form that thought into a question using HMW and write it on your sticky note.
  • Peel the note off and stick it somewhere
  • Repeat!

So What?

So you don’t to use this method, it is perfectly acceptable to approach a challenge the traditional way. The traditional method comes with a lot of assumptions including,

  • The customer actually knows what their problem is… (Rarely the case)
  • The customer and team solving the challenge has NO preconditioned solution or expected output from the exercise. (If you already know the solution, why are we here?)
  • The problem presented is the correct problem to be solved and not just a symptom of a much larger issue.

Using HMW and other tools to redefine the problem helps ensure the team is driving in the right direction and most closely identifies the root cause of the issue.

My personal experience when hearing pitch competitions and mentoring six-sigma projects is people and teams often approach a challenge with a solution. This solution was likely developed before the problem was defined and becomes analogous to using a hammer to vacuuming your carpet. How do you know this solution will work for your organization? Is this the best solution given the requirements? Do you know the requirements and what it takes to implement the solution? How might we identify additional stakeholders to ensure we’re solving the right issue and/or quickly receive feedback on the predetermined solution to gain an idea if this would actually work?

Always be sure to know the question before giving a solution – otherwise who may be saying, “Jesus is the answer!”, but the question was, “Who farted?”.

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