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The 5 Whys Root Cause Analysis Tool: How & When to Use it

The 5 Whys Root Cause Analysis tool is a simple yet powerful technique used to identify the root causes of problems. It can be used in any situation where you are trying to determine why something has happened, or why it hasn’t happened.

By asking “why” five times, you can drill down into the underlying cause of a problem and take action to fix it. At CyberMedics, we'll discuss when and how this method should be used so that you get the most out of it.

Ready? Let's go.

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What are the 5 Whys, and where did it come from?

The 5 Whys Root Cause Analysis tool was originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda (founder of Toyota Industries) as a way of troubleshooting problems in the company. It’s been used effectively in business, engineering, and other fields ever since.

The idea behind the technique is simple: you keep asking “why” until you find the root cause of an issue. The number '5' isn't set in stone, but rather derived from the observation that asking five times why is often sufficient to uncover the fundamental reason. Of course, exploring deeper may require more or fewer whys depending on how profound the cause really is.

Why use the 5 whys?

  1. Identifies the root cause: (Well, duh) By asking "why" repeatedly, the 5 Whys tool helps to uncover the root cause of a problem, rather than just addressing the symptoms. This enables you to fix the root cause and prevent the problem from recurring.

  2. Helps to avoid quick fixes: Often, when a problem arises, people tend to jump straight to a quick-fix solution without understanding the underlying issue. But the 5 Whys forces you to dig deeper into the problem and identify the real cause.

  3. Encourages collaboration: The 5 Whys tool is best used in a group setting, where people can share their perspectives, ideas, and ultimately work together to identify the root cause and find a solution.

  4. Saves time and resources: By identifying the root cause of a problem, you can avoid wasting time and resources on temporary fixes or solutions that don't address the underlying issue. This can save you time and money in the long run.

  5. Improves processes: The 5 Whys can help you identify inefficiencies or bottlenecks in a process, allowing you to improve the process and make it more efficient.

When should you use the 5 Whys analysis?

  • Unplanned system downtime: Imagine a situation where a company's web application unexpectedly goes down, causing major disruptions for customers. The 5 Whys can be used to trace back the root cause of this problem, possibly identifying server capacity issues or software bugs that need to be addressed.

  • Frequent software bugs: If a development team is constantly dealing with software bugs or defects, the 5 Whys could reveal problems like insufficient testing, unclear requirements, or communication gaps within the team.

  • Slow application performance: If users are complaining about slow response times or load times, the 5 Whys can help uncover inefficient code, lack of optimization, or any server resource constraints. Read next: 7 Deadly Wastes of Lean Software Development (+ The Fixes).

  • High customer support requests: If a company is receiving a large number of support tickets related to a specific software feature or functionality, the 5 Whys can be employed to find out why this is happening. Possible causes might be poor user experience, lack of documentation, or a confusing interface.

  • Low user adoption rates: When a company launches a new software product or feature, but it doesn't get the expected user adoption, the 5 Whys can be useful to understand why users aren't embracing it – whether that's a lack of marketing efforts, unmet user needs, or poor onboarding experiences.

  • Too many project delays: If a development team consistently misses deadlines or milestones, the 5 Whys can help uncover the reasons like overambitious project scopes, poor time management, or insufficient resources.

How to perform the 5 Whys root cause analysis (with examples)

Step 1: Define the problem

Start by clearly identifying the problem you're facing. It's important to be specific and focus on a single issue. For example, "Our software application is experiencing frequent crashes" is a more focused problem than just "Our software is unreliable."

Step 2: Ask the first "Why?"

Now, ask yourself why this problem is occurring. It's essential to base your answer on facts and not assumptions. For instance, "Why is our software application crashing frequently?" A possible answer could be "The server is running out of memory."

Step 3: Dive deeper with more "Whys"

Keep asking "Why?" for each answer you get until you reach the root cause of the problem. Typically, you'll ask "Why?" about five times, but it may vary depending on the complexity of the issue. For our example:

  • Why is the server running out of memory? "Our application is not optimized and consumes more memory than expected."

  • Why is the application not optimized? "The development team didn't prioritize performance optimization during the development process."

  • Why wasn't performance optimization prioritized? "The project timeline was tight, and the focus was on delivering features rather than optimizing performance."

Step 4: Verify the root cause

At this point, you should have identified the root cause of the problem. Now, it's time to verify if it's the real cause by analyzing available data and information. In our example, you could check the project management documentation, review the development team's priorities, or discuss the issue with team members to confirm that the tight timeline indeed led to the lack of performance optimization.

Step 5: Develop and implement a corrective action plan

Once you've verified the root cause, brainstorm potential solutions to address it. Collaborate with your team and other stakeholders to come up with an effective action plan. In our case, some possible solutions might include:

  • Revising the project timeline to allocate more time for performance optimization

  • Implementing a mandatory performance review process before releasing new features

  • Providing training on performance optimization best practices for the development team

To address your software problems, you may need to adopt a new software development methodology. Make sure you’re choosing the right one for your situation.

Step 6: Monitor the results

After implementing the corrective action plan, monitor the results closely to ensure the problem is resolved. Keep track of relevant metrics and gather feedback from users, team members, and other stakeholders. If the issue persists or new problems arise, you may need to revisit your root cause analysis or consider refining your action plan.

Step 7: Document the process and learnings

Finally, document the entire 5 Whys process, including the problem, root cause, corrective actions, and outcomes. This documentation can serve as a valuable resource for future problem-solving efforts and help your team learn from the experience.

Additionally, sharing these learnings with other teams in your organization can foster a culture of continuous improvement.

Remember, the 5 Whys root cause analysis is an iterative process, and sometimes you might need to go through the steps more than once to fully resolve a problem. The key is to stay focused, collaborative, and open to learning from each experience.

Keep these key things in mind during your root cause analysis!

  1. Stay objective: It's crucial to base your analysis on facts and data, rather than assumptions or opinions. This will help you identify the true root cause of the problem more accurately.

  2. Encourage open communication: A successful 5 Whys analysis requires honest and open communication among team members. Make sure everyone feels comfortable sharing their thoughts and insights without fear of judgment.

  3. Be patient and persistent: Sometimes, finding the root cause can take longer than expected. Stay patient, and don't be afraid to ask "Why?" more than five times if needed.

  4. Focus on the process, not individuals: Keep the focus on identifying issues in the processes and systems, rather than blaming specific individuals. This will help create a more productive and supportive environment for problem-solving.

  5. Collaborate with relevant stakeholders: Involve people from different areas of expertise to ensure a comprehensive understanding of the problem and to develop well-rounded solutions.

  6. Don't settle for superficial causes: Make sure you dig deep enough to find the real root cause, rather than stopping at symptoms or surface-level issues.

Lastly: Don't be afraid to ask for a professional hand.

All in all, the 5 Whys root cause analysis is a powerful tool that can help you identify and address the underlying issues behind any problem. To get the most out of it, remember to stay focused and open-minded, involve relevant stakeholders, and document your process and learnings.

And if you ever feel stuck or overwhelmed with your company's situation, don't hesitate to ask for professional help. At CyberMedics, we know a thing or two about getting to the bottom of a software problem, as we've done for many enterprises.

If you're having trouble getting to the root cause, just reach out to learn more about how our expert development team can help.


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