Project Management

The 5 Whys Template: Find the Root Cause With This Problem-solving Tool

Dovile Miseviciute ·

Passionate content marketer looking to bring better solutions to the project management space. 2020 - Present Marketing specialist at Teamhood. 2014 - 2020 Marketing manager for Eylean.

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 effective and valuable technique for establishing the causal relationships between problems. This article seeks to explain the 5 Whys template 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 problem-solving technique?

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

The vertical arrangement of the template slide displays labels in five different colors, each labeled with numbers and question mark icons. Associated with these colored labels are text boxes that are greyed out, allowing for the inclusion of answers or additional supporting details.

The technique aims 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 understand the problem or scenario under interrogation. 

Suppose there is a customer complaint about a faulty product. Using the 5 Whys template, teams can identify and sequentially document the root causes.

The 5 Whys template is a form of brainstorming, and if done well, it can uncover unknown potential root causes of problems. As a result, it is often best used to drive process improvements and ensure that past mistakes do not reoccur.

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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 the right stakeholders involved in this brainstorming, including key decision-makers.

When selecting stakeholders, consider individuals with relevant expertise, knowledge, and decision-making authority. In addition, it is essential to include representatives from different departments or teams directly or indirectly impacted by the topic under discussion.

Step 2: Assign a moderator

Someone needs to drive the conversation, follow all the process steps, and ensure that assumptions are avoided. 

Tip: Pick someone with experience with this technique or naturally very interested. An experienced facilitator understands the importance of establishing ground rules and setting expectations at the beginning of the session. They create an open, non-judgmental atmosphere where participants feel comfortable sharing their ideas and thoughts.

Step 3: Create a problem statement

Before discussing what went wrong with your team, create a problem statement. The problem statement should explain the issue your team needs to address in 1-2 sentences. Then, add the problem statement to the template. The template should focus on no more than one problem at a time.

For example, we have come up with 2 problem statements:

  1. The app was delivered two days late, resulting in harm to customers and a disruption to their user experience.
  2. The marketing campaign for the new product failed to achieve the desired results, resulting in underwhelming sales and limited customer engagement.

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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, harming customers, you could start with the broadest version of this question: Why was the app late?

Answer: It was late because of a production delay.

Let’s consider another example: Imagine a marketing campaign for a new product failed to achieve the desired results. This time, you can begin by posing another broad question: Why did the marketing campaign fall short?

Answer: The campaign fell short due to ineffective messaging.

By now you should see the direction we are taking with this approach.

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.

This example would be: Why was there a production delay?

Answer: Because the engineering team had to deploy a last-minute patch, which the product team learned about on launch day.

Question: Why was the messaging ineffective?

Answer: The messaging was ineffective because it failed to resonate with the target audience.

Well done! We are getting closer to identifying the root cause of the problem.

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 it 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.

In our marketing example, the next question could be: Why did the messaging fail to resonate with the target audience?

We could answer that the messaging failed to resonate with the target audience because it did not address their specific needs and desires, and so on.

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 needs to be able to communicate with the product team, and the ultimate reason for that is that there is no straightforward process for doing so. A transparent process needs to improve communication, leading to delays and misunderstandings and ultimately impacting the timely delivery of the app.

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. In addition, this allows you to amend your problem statement as you go.

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Step 8: Propose solutions

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

Practical example

You’ve already seen examples of an app that was delivered late and a marketing campaign that failed to achieve its targets. 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 Teamhood’s 5 Whys template could help:

5 Whys template

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.

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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 to help you review project data 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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