The 5 Whys: A Discussion Process for Getting to Root Cause

Step One of the planning process begins with discussion to uncover the root causes of issues and concerns. The technique used, ‘The 5 Whys’, is a simple, effective discussion tool for digging down into a problem to find the root cause or causes.

A word about ‘process’. The terms ‘process’ and ‘procedure’ are often used interchangeably. However, they do have distinctly different definitions and purposes.

Procedure: A series of steps performed in a set order to produce a uniform result. The same sequence must be followed each time, and each step fully completed before moving on. Useful when the identical specifications are required of the result each time. For example: manufacturing a component for an electronic device.

Process: A series of inter-related and interdependent actions directed toward achieving a particular type of result. Each step in the action sequence represents movement forward and can be performed out of sequence without compromising the end result. Steps can be repeated or actions within the step can be revised. Useful when the result must meet the standards of the same broad category. The result can and should be unique in its details. For example: building a home follows the same basic construction process, providing for choices in building materials, colors etc. or revisions to the basic design.

How do you know if a problem is a symptom or a root cause? It may be helpful to think about the difference in a medical scenario. When someone has a headache, the typical remedy is to take a pain reliever such as aspirin or ibuprofen. If the headache persists, it likely will become more a symptom of some other problem that needs medical attention. Headaches that persist or are severe could be a symptom of a number of underlying problems that will not be resolved by using over the counter pain relievers to treat the symptom. Until the root cause is identified and effective remedies are put in place, the headache is likely to persist.

Problems faced in human service systems can be thought of in the same way. Problems cannot be solved by addressing only the symptoms. Resolving persisting issues can only be accomplished by getting at the root cause of the problem.

The 5 Whys strategy is not a process for assigning blame to people or systems. 5 Whys helps the Team move past the impulse to stop the problem-solving process at blaming the issues and problems on the ‘classic trio’ of not enough time, money or people. It may be true enough that adequate time, money or people, are not in place; however, these factors are often beyond the direct sphere of influence of a locally based team. Laying the blame on a problem that the local Team cannot adequately solve, allows the Team to admire it, but does not empower them to change the situation for the better.

Root cause that can be addressed at the practitioner level most often describes some flawed or absent procedure or process among local agencies or some real or perceived disconnect in communication or practices across systems. Finding the root cause of issues and problems is necessary in order for Teams to design Goals and Strategies that address the source of the problem, leading to systemic and sustainable solutions and practices. Building a plan based on symptoms leads to that feeling of ‘putting a Band-Aid’ on an issue that, in reality, requires deeper, more comprehensive response.

What is ‘a problem’? Simply stated, a problem is a gap between a current situation and a desired or ideal state. It is a deviation from what is expected or acceptable. Strategies that only address the symptoms of problems result in a continual cycle of confronting the same unwanted situation. On the fly, people frequently develop work-arounds that temporarily alleviate the problem, but only for the moment. Using the 5 Whys gives Teams the chance to hit the pause button, and first spend the time necessary to dig underneath the symptoms to get to the actual problem.

The gap between where we are and where we want to be

A problem is the gap between the 'real' (current) and the 'ideal'

The 5 Whys strategy unfolds in 3 Stages of Discussion:

  • Stage A – Defining the Problem
  • Stage B – Begin the 5 Whys Process
  • Stage C – Continue the 5 Whys Process to Reveal Root Cause

Each Stage of the discussion is described in the sections that follow. These Stages are a way to think, as much as they are steps to follow. With a little practice, they become an automatic habit of the mind and the standard way the Team approaches the work.


Download the 5 Whys' Detailed Directions PDF

Download the 5 Whys Blank Graphic Organizer PDF