The 5 Whys Template: Everything You Need to Know

5 whys template

The 5 Whys template is a simple yet powerful tool for root cause analysis. It takes an iterative approach to problem-solving and is based on the technique developed by a Japanese inventor and industrialist Sakichi Toyoda in the early 20th century.

Despite the age of this approach, the 5 Whys template remains an influential and useful technique for establishing the causal relationships between problems. This article seeks to explain what the 5 Whys template is, when to use it, and how to use it. 

If you are interested to see more project management templates, see this post:

Project Management Templates

What is a 5 Whys template?

5 Whys is an iterative interrogative technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem.

The goal of the technique is to determine the root cause of a defect or problem by repeating the question “Why?” five times. The answer to the fifth why should reveal the root cause of the problem.

When to use a 5 Whys template

Problems do not always have a linear cause-and-effect relationship, so this technique works best when used by people who have a good understanding of the problem or scenario under interrogation. 

The 5 Whys template is a form of brainstorming, and if done well can uncover unknown potential root causes of problems. It is often best used as a means of driving process improvements and ensuring that past mistakes do not reoccur.

How to use a 5 Whys template

There are many ways that teams can use the 5 Whys template in practice. From our experience and that of some of our clients, there are some basic preparatory steps to take first before moving through a process. Let’s take a look at those steps here:

Step 1: Gather the right stakeholders

You need to have the right stakeholders involved in this kind of brainstorming, including key decision-makers.

Step 2: Assign a moderator

Someone needs to drive the conversation, follow all the steps of the process, and ensure that assumptions are avoided. Try and pick a person that already has some experience with this technique or is naturally very inquisitive.

Step 3: Create a problem statement

Before you discuss what went wrong with your team, start by creating a problem statement. The problem statement should explain the issue your team needs to address in 1-2 sentences. Add the problem statement to the template.

Step 4: Start by asking the broadest possible question

Use the template to give structure to your brainstorming discussions. Start by asking the group to think about the problem statement and what contributed to it.

If the problem was that you shipped an app two days late, having a negative effect on customers, you can start with the broadest version of this question: Why was the app late?

Answer: It was late because of a production delay.

Step 5: Narrow the question and ask again

As we’re following the 5 Whys template, the next step is to narrow down the question and see where it leads.

In this example, it would be: Why was there a production delay?

Answer: Because the engineering team had to deploy a last-minute patch, which the product team did not know about until launch day.

Step 6: Narrow the questions and ask again up to three more times

You then continue with the process of narrowing the question as far as is practical.

In this example, the next question might be: Why didn’t the product team know about the patch? 

The answer to this question might be that the product team didn’t know about the patch because engineering didn’t communicate it to them.

The next question would be why the engineering team didn’t communicate. 

Step 7: Discuss the problem’s causes

Having gone through this process, you might find using this example that you uncover that the engineering team is not able to communicate with the product team, and the ultimate reason for that is that there is no straightforward process for doing so. 

At this point, your discussion will focus on the problem’s potential causes. Going through this process five times will enable you to add answers that explain the situation in more detail. This enables you to amend your problem statement as you go. 

Step 8: Propose solutions

As you come up with answers to your five questions, you will find that you come up with a range of potential solutions to each problem that you uncover. Your team is likely to devise more solutions the more specific the questions become. Note these insights and ideas either on a whiteboard or on a kanban board. For each solution, mention where these came from so you can later assign owners and add action items, with the next steps to follow up.  

Practical example

You’ve already seen the example of an app that was delivered late. Here’s a simpler example to reiterate how the process is supposed to work in principle:

Say that your problem to solve is that your car won’t start. Here is how using the 5 Whys template could help:

  • Why (won’t the car start)? – Because the battery is dead. 
  • Why (is the battery dead)? – Because the alternator is not functioning.
  • Why (is the alternator not functioning)? – Because the alternator belt has broken. 
  • Why (has the alternator belt broken)? – Because the alternator belt was worn out and in need of replacement.
  • Why (was the alternator belt not replaced before it broke)? – Because the vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule.

The final answer in this sequence – that the car was not maintained according to the service schedule, is the root cause. Once established, you and your team would be able to come up with potential solutions to this problem, leading to actionable next steps. 

What you can do next

The 5 Whys template can be an extremely useful brainstorming and diagnostic tool for uncovering the root cause of problems – particularly those that persist. While you can manage this process in person using a whiteboard, you can also do it digitally by using your project management solution to write down the 5 whys and their answers.

If you are looking for a project management tool that will help you review project data in order to answer the 5 whys and track the ongoing efforts, check out Teamhood. It is visual, free to use, and suitable for all teams.

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2020 - Present Marketing specialist at Teamhood.
2014 - 2020 Marketing manager for Eylean.

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