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Annette Franz

Customer Care

The 5 Whys: Getting to the Root of the Matter

Are you solving problems so they never happen again?

Published: Monday, October 10, 2016 - 15:21

How are you getting to the root cause of any issue you or your customers are having? What types of root cause analyses are you conducting? Are you even thinking about root cause analysis?

Conducting some sort of root cause analysis (and there are many different types) any time you experience an issue is critical for the simple fact that you want to nip the issue in the bud and not have it occur again. Too many companies fix the symptoms and call it a day, only for the issue to occur again and again. When you fix the symptoms, you’re applying bandages rather than curing the disease. Getting at the root cause and fixing it ensures the same issue won’t recur.

One of my favorite root cause analysis methods is the 5 Whys. I like it for its simplicity. Whether that’s a good thing or not, I don’t know. But I do know that simplicity allows people to really understand what it means to get to the root of the matter. It also helps you understand the relationship between different (root) causes. Simple, quick, and powerful.

According to Wikipedia: “5 Whys is an iterative interrogative technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem. The primary goal of the technique is to determine the root cause of a defect or problem by repeating the question, “Why?” Each question forms the basis of the next question. The “5” in the name derives from an anecdotal observation on the number of iterations needed to resolve the problem.

This method was developed by Sakichi Toyoda; it was adopted throughout Toyota Motor Co. for a variety of uses, but it was specifically used when the automaker developed and evolved its manufacturing methodologies.

As noted, simply state the problem, and then ask (and answer) “Why?” five times to drill down to the ultimate cause. You can adapt this process to your needs; sometimes asking “Why?” five times is too many, and sometimes you need to ask more than five times.

“If you don’t ask the right questions, you don’t get the right answers. A question asked in the right way often points to its own answer. Asking questions is the ABC of diagnosis. Only the inquiring mind solves problems.”
—Edward Hodnett

Be aware that one of the problems with the 5 Whys is that different people may come up with different root causes. I recently saw a post by Pete Abilla about his experience at Amazon, when Jeff Bezos conducted an impromptu 5 Whys session to understand why an employee hurt himself. Abilla wrote:

“Why did the associate damage his thumb?
“Because his thumb got caught in the conveyor.

“Why did his thumb get caught in the conveyor?
“Because he was chasing his bag, which was on a running conveyor belt.

“Why did he chase his bag?
“Because he placed his bag on the conveyor, but it then turned on by surprise.

“Why was his bag on the conveyor?
“Because he used the conveyor as a table.

“So, the likely root cause of the associate’s damaged thumb is that he simply needed a table; there wasn’t one around, so he used a conveyor as a table. To eliminate further safety incidences, we need to provide tables at the appropriate stations, or provide portable, light tables for the associates to use. And update and maintain greater focus on safety training.  Also, look into preventive maintenance standard work.”

I came up with a different root cause, as I followed along. I inserted the question, “Why did the conveyor turn on by surprise?” That took me down a different path. So be aware of that. Having cross-functional representation in the 5 Whys session will be helpful, especially if your scope of knowledge limits your ability to go further into the analysis. I think it’s OK to come up with different root causes; it drives further discussion and investigation to get to the real root of the matter. In my mind, it’s possible that there are a couple things that need to be fixed, not just one. You need to understand the impact of each and prioritize improvements accordingly. As the Wikipedia post suggests, it might be a good idea to have some test of necessity and sufficiency at each level of analysis.

For more details—and to ensure that you move the organization from fixing symptoms to fixing the root cause—Eric Ries writes a great post on how to conduct a 5 Whys root cause analysis.

“A relentless barrage of ‘whys’ is the best way to prepare your mind to pierce the clouded veil of thinking caused by the status quo. Use it often.”
—Shigeo Shingo


About The Author

Annette Franz’s picture

Annette Franz

Annette Franz is CEO of CX Journey Inc, a boutique customer experience strategy consulting firm specializing in helping clients ground and frame their customer experience strategies in/via employee and customer understanding. She has 25 years of experience in the CX space and has been recognized as one of “The 100 Most Influential Tech Women on Twitter” by Business Insider and by several other organizations as a top influencer in Customer Experience. She is an active CXPA member, as a CX Expert and a CX Mentor; she also serves as an executive officer on the association’s Board of Directors.