Stage C: Continue 5 Whys Process to Reveal Root Cause

The ‘answer’ to the 1st Why becomes the 2nd Why question and so on until no additional useful information results. Repeatedly asking ‘why’ provides opportunity to dissect the original statement, breaking it down into increasingly smaller and more specific increments to arrive at the core (or multiple cores) of the problem.

It is premature to discuss potential solutions at this stage, although Teams will be tempted to do so. When useful ideas for goals, strategies, events, etc. surface during 5 Whys discussion, write them down and consider them later at an appropriate time in the planning process. If ‘How’ or ‘What if’ questions are being asked, instead of ‘Why’ questions, the Team may have arrived at a root cause and has begun to prematurely start looking for solutions.

Arriving at root cause is a judgement by the Team. A cue that the 5 Whys have run their course is that the next ‘Why’ does not provide any additional insight or useful information. Root cause statements generally point to one or more of the items in the Root Cause Checklist.

Complex problems require complex responses. It is not unusual for a problem to have multiple root causes. Each may require a different strategy to address it. There are times when a single strategy can be designed to address multiple root causes at the same time. The Team will want to keep track of all of the root causes for a problem and discuss them more fully when it comes time to develop goals and objectives.

Each Team’s Root Cause discussion will be unique to them, their community and to the nature of the problem they are analyzing. That’s what makes this process so effective for strategic planning – each Team identifies problems they feel capable of and confident to address with goals and strategies to achieve their vision.

Sometimes, the answer to a ‘Why’ question is ‘we don’t know’ or ‘we’re not sure’. That is a cue that the Team needs to get more information or gather data in order to stick with the facts, and not rely on opinion, conjecture or perception. Make plans for gathering and analyzing the needed data, and return to the 5 Whys once it is gathered. Suspend the 5 Whys process for this problem statement until the additional data or information is gathered.

For example, “Families start transition planning too late” is a complex problem and there are many reasons why that occurs, in addition to the root cause illustrated in Example 1. The Team could have gone in a different direction by citing that Family sessions designed to provide an overview of various agency services have not been well attended. However, that sounded to the Team as if they were ‘blaming’ families for not attending the sessions. The Team realized they needed more information to get to a root cause for this issue:

  • Why don’t families attend the planned sessions?
  • Do families who do attend the sessions connect with agencies earlier for transition planning?
  • The Team would have suspended the 5 Whys process until they had some data and information about the 2 questions above or any other questions that may come up.

It is crucial to use the 5 Whys as the first step in the process to add each new goal to the plan. Thinking through the 5 Whys process becomes automatic with some practice, making it a quick and simple discussion, rather than a paper/pencil activity. Always start with Stage A in the process, taking the time to determine a descriptive, clear statement of the problem using ‘What’ questions first. Then proceed to the 1st Why and so on until the discussion runs its course. The time invested in thinking through the 5 Whys process pays off since the Team avoids wasting time and resources in ultimately futile attempts to solve symptoms instead of root causes. The root causes that derive from the discussion serve as the anchors for the goals and strategies of the plan that the Team will develop later in this strategic planning process.

Asking 5 ‘why’ questions is only a rule of thumb. As a process, 5 Whys is flexible, and not rigid like a procedure. The Team may find only 2 or 3 Whys are needed in one case and 7 or 8 Whys for another to get to a root cause. Whether it takes 2, 5 or 9 Whys to get there, the Team ‘will know’ when they have hit on a logical root cause to which everyone agrees.

See the 5 Whys Stage C Examples for two ways a Team’s discussion might proceed.


Download Stage C's Example PDF