Determine the Root Cause: 5 Whys
Asking “Why?” may be a favorite technique of your three year old child in driving you crazy, but it could teach you a valuable Six Sigma quality lesson. The 5 Whys is a technique used in the Analyze phase of the Six Sigma DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) methodology. It is a great Six Sigma tool that does not involve data segmentation, hypothesis testing, regression or other advanced statistical tools, and in many cases can be completed without a data collection plan.
By repeatedly asking the question “Why” (five is a good rule of thumb), you can peel away the layers of symptoms which can lead to the root cause of a problem. Very often the ostensible reason for a problem will lead you to another question. Although this technique is called “5 Whys,” you may find that you will need to ask the question fewer or more times than five before you find the issue related to a problem.
Benefits of the 5 Whys
- Help identify the root cause of a problem.
- Determine the relationship between different root causes of a problem.
- One of the simplest tools; easy to complete without statistical analysis.
When Is 5 Whys Most Useful?
- When problems involve human factors or interactions.
- In day-to-day business life; can be used within or without a Six Sigma project.
How to Complete the 5 Whys
- Write down the specific problem. Writing the issue helps you formalize the problem and describe it completely. It also helps a team focus on the same problem.
- Ask Why the problem happens and write the answer down below the problem.
- If the answer you just provided doesn’t identify the root cause of the problem that you wrote down in Step 1, ask Why again and write that answer down.
- Loop back to step 3 until the team is in agreement that the problem’s root cause is identified. Again, this may take fewer or more times than five Whys.
5 Whys Examples
Problem Statement: Customers are unhappy because they are being shipped products that don’t meet their specifications.
1. Why are customers being shipped bad products?
– Because manufacturing built the products to a specification that is different from what the customer and the sales person agreed to.
2. Why did manufacturing build the products to a different specification than that of sales?
– Because the sales person expedites work on the shop floor by calling the head of manufacturing directly to begin work. An error happened when the specifications were being communicated or written down.
3. Why does the sales person call the head of manufacturing directly to start work instead of following the procedure established in the company?
– Because the “start work” form requires the sales director’s approval before work can begin and slows the manufacturing process (or stops it when the director is out of the office).
4. Why does the form contain an approval for the sales director?
– Because the sales director needs to be continually updated on sales for discussions with the CEO.
In this case only four Whys were required to find out that a non-value added signature authority is helping to cause a process breakdown.
Let’s take a look at a slightly more humorous example modified from Marc R.’s posting of 5 Whys in the iSixSigma Dictionary.
Problem Statement: You are on your way home from work and your car stops in the middle of the road.
1. Why did your car stop?
– Because it ran out of gas.
2. Why did it run out of gas?
– Because I didn’t buy any gas on my way to work.
3. Why didn’t you buy any gas this morning?
– Because I didn’t have any money.
4. Why didn’t you have any money?
– Because I lost it all last night in a poker game.
5. Why did you lose your money in last night’s poker game?
– Because I’m not very good at “bluffing” when I don’t have a good hand.
As you can see, in both examples the final Why leads the team to a statement (root cause) that the team can take action upon. It is much quicker to come up with a system that keeps the sales director updated on recent sales or teach a person to “bluff” a hand than it is to try to directly solve the stated problems above without further investigation.
5 Whys and the Fishbone Diagram
The 5 Whys can be used individually or as a part of the fishbone (also known as the cause and effect or Ishikawa) diagram. The fishbone diagram helps you explore all potential or real causes that result in a single defect or failure. Once all inputs are established on the fishbone, you can use the 5 Whys technique to drill down to the root causes.
“If you don’t ask the right questions, you don’t get the right answers. A question asked in the right way often points to its own answer. Asking questions is the ABC of diagnosis. Only the inquiring mind solves problems.” – Edward Hodnett
The 5 why’s typically refers to the practice of asking, five times, why the failure has occurred in order to get to the root cause/causes of the problem. There can be more than one cause to a problem as well. In an organizational context, generally root cause analysis is carried out by a team of persons related to the problem. No special technique is required.
An example is in order:
You are on your way home from work and your car stops:
- Why did your car stop? Because it ran out of gas.
- Why did it run out of gas? Because I didn’t buy any gas on my way to work.
- Why didn’t you buy any gas this morning? Because I didn’t have any money.
- Why didn’t you have any money? Because I lost it all last night in a poker game.I hope you don’t mind the silly example but it should illustrate the importance of digging down beneath the most proximate cause of the problem. Failure to determine the root cause assures that you will be treating the symptoms of the problem instead of its cause, in which case, the disease will return, that is, you will continue to have the same problems over and over again.