The 'Five Whys'

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The ‘Five Whys’ is a great method for getting to the root causes of a problem. It’s a simple technique and consists of asking ‘why?’ several times in succession — just like children do.

The idea originated with the Toyota Motor Company, who found that asking ‘why’ five times encourages people to go beyond the first idea they think of and usually determines the root cause of a problem. Although the technique is called the five whys, you can ask ‘why’ as many times as it takes to get to the root causes of a problem. Determining root causes not only produces better, longer-lasting solutions but also helps solve other problems and prevent those that have not yet surfaced.


  1. Define the problem clearly (a problem is the difference between ‘What Is’ and ‘What Should Be’).
  2. Ask the group why the problem has occurred and capture the responses.
  3. Keep on asking why until no more answers can be given.
  4. Use the captured responses to generate solutions that eliminate, or at least overcome, the causes.


Before tackling a real problem, it’s a good idea to give the group an exercise so that they fully understand the importance of getting to the root causes. You can use an example of your own or use the following one.

Problem: The house is in darkness.

The lights have gone out.

The circuit breaker has tripped.

There is a current leakage to the earth wire.

An under-floor heating pipe is leaking, and the water is shorting the electric valve.

The central heating water pressure is too high…

This example is particularly good because many people would stop at re-setting the circuit breaker and miss the leak (another problem) altogether; others might stop after repairing the leak only to find that the problem keeps recurring.

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