Solving Problems in Your Business by Simply Asking, “Why?”



why.jpgOften when we are faced with a problem, we react quickly without thinking it through, ultimately treating the symptom and not the real cause. This allows the issue to return because we didn’t properly treat the root of the problem. Similar to a dandelion, when we pull up the flower but leave the root, the weed returns.

When situations like this occur in business, leaders need a proven, comprehensive method for solving problems that could arise.

Developed by Sakichi Toyoda, inventor and founder of Toyota Industries, the 5-Why method is a simple, but powerful, analysis tool that can help teams identify root cause(s) of a problem. Since the automotive industry popularized this tool, many believe it can’t be applied to their business or processes. In reality, the 5-Why method can easily be applied to any business environment to solve problems and implement corrective actions.

The beauty of the 5-Why method lies in its simplicity. When a problem has been identified, whether it involves slow sales, computer malfunctions or even employee disengagement, the team asks “why” five times to get at the root cause of the problem. (Note: The “5” in “5-Why” is just a rule of thumb; in many cases, you’ll need to continue beyond five rounds, or you may reach the root cause before asking your fifth why.) This allows you to move beyond obvious answers, or symptoms, and reflect on underlying causes. Then, the team can identify and implement an effective countermeasure to prevent the issue from reoccurring.

Broken down into steps, the technique consists of the following:

  1. Gather a team of people who are familiar with the details of the problem and the process that you are trying to fix. Ideally, include someone as a facilitator who can keep the team focused on identifying effective questions, answers and countermeasures.
  2. Identify the problem. This involves defining and observing the problem in action, if possible. With your team, write a brief, clear problem statement you all agree on.
  3. Ask “why” the problem is occurring. You may start by asking, “Why did this happen?” Make sure your answer is grounded in fact. It must be an account of something that has actually happened, not a guess or hunch at what might have happened. You should be able to provide evidence for your response. This prevents 5-Why from becoming just a process of deductive reasoning, which can generate numerous possible causes and, in many cases, create more confusion as you chase down hypothetical problems.
  4. Once you have your first answer, ask “why” again. Continue this process until you reach the root cause of the problem. Usually, you will be able to identify the root cause after asking “why” five times. (Five is the average; it could be more, it could be less)
  5. Know when to stop. This is where confusion comes in for new teams. In most cases, the root cause will have been identified when asking “why” no longer produces useful responses. Or, as I like to say, you have reached the “I don’t know” level.
  6. Come up with a countermeasure (or corrective action) that prevents the problem from reoccurring. Make sure you discuss this with your team and agree that it will solve the issue.

While this method sounds great in theory, it is more helpful to see it in practice. Let us look at some examples of how asking “why” can help solve problems at work or in daily life.

Scenario 1: A child comes home crying, bruised and complaining his arm hurts. He is taken to the doctor, where he discovers his arm is fractured – what happened?

Problem Statement: A child’s arm is broken           

Why? The child fell off his bike                  

Why? He was riding too fast and lost control            

Why? He was racing down Blueberry Hill                                             

Why? He took his friend’s dare to race to the bottom of Blueberry Hill                    

Why? There was an argument over who was the best rider and he is competitive (root cause)

After asking why five times, the root cause was determined to be the child’s competitive nature. To check your logic, follow the process in reverse, stating “therefore” after each answer. For example: the child is competitive, therefore he took his friend’s dare, etc.… Countermeasures for this issue should address the child’s emotions.

Scenario 2: Manufacturing process of welding – what happened?

Problem Statement: Part is not spot welded                       

Why? Robot stopped                

Why? No power to reboot            

Why? Circuit breaker tripped         

Why? Frayed wires                          

Why? Wires rubbing on housing (most likely root cause)

Why? We don’t know…    

In Scenario 2, most people would stop once they realize the circuit breaker was tripped, which is only a symptom of the wires rubbing on the housing. Here, the wires need to be repaired or replaced to prevent them from rubbing on the housing in the future, which in turn would prevent the robot from stopping again. This took six “whys” to get to the most likely root cause and required some process knowledge, or a visit to the shop floor, to uncover what was happening.

In the above scenarios, we settled on one singular cause. During your “why” questioning, your team members may end up identifying more than one reason. If so, repeat the process for each new reason until you reach a root cause for each branch. 

Once you have identified at least one root cause, the team should discuss and agree on countermeasures to prevent the problem from returning. After countermeasures have been implemented, you’ll need to monitor how effective they are in eliminating or reducing the initial problem. You may discover the problem is unchanged, in which case you should repeat the 5-Why process.

This simple problem-solving tool is one proven way for organizations or individuals to uncover root causes. Practice and process knowledge, along with a cross-functional team, make the 5-Why method an invaluable tool to address issues that may arise in your business.  Whether you are seeking corrective action or just ways to improve, the 5-Why is an easy and valuable tool that will guide the team in finding solutions.


wicker_d-WEB.jpgDale Wicker, Quality Program Manager
Dale Wicker is one of the Program Managers in the Quality Group of the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center.  Dale Wicker manages and delivers training and implementation assistance to organizations in the field of Quality Improvements. Some of these projects involve assistance with implementing a Quality Management System such as ISO 9001 (generic commonly used Quality System), ISO/TS 16949 (the automotive version Quality System), and AS 9100 (the aerospace/defense version) Quality System.  


Since 1991, the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center has assisted Michigan’s small and medium-sized businesses to successfully compete and grow. Through personalized services designed to meet the needs of clients, we develop more effective business leaders, drive product and process innovation, promote company-wide operational excellence and foster creative strategies for business growth and greater profitability. Find us at

Categories: Quality Management