What are the 5 whys analysis and what makes it useful?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 22 June 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Solving problems effectively in business can help organisations make gradual improvements in each department. This can range from how staff members treat customers to the quality of the products created and may even address areas such as improving financial efficiency in the ordering of new materials. Before attempting such tasks, it's helpful to be aware of a set method you can use to conduct your analysis. In this article, we discuss what the 5 whys analysis is, why it's useful and how you can use it to implement changes in your company.

What is the 5 whys analysis method?

The 5 whys analysis is an approach to assessing problems within an organisation by digging as deeply into the possible underlying causes of the issues rather than the symptoms. It's designed to present the analyser with detailed results while also being simple to employ. The method's starting point is simply to ask 'why?'. By asking why to the initial issue, you can get a better idea of the issue's root cause and work specifically to resolve it. You can then ask why the root cause is the way it is and then why that is also the way it is.

What makes the 5 whys analysis useful?

The 5 whys analysis is one of the most useful tools for establishing where any problems in your company might come from. To be at its most effective, though, the 5 whys analysis requires honest assessments of the situation unaffected by personal bias. It asks you to take a neutral standpoint on the causes of a problem so that each of its five steps can progress appropriately towards an actionable solution. Below are some of the key principles of the 5 whys analysis and why it's a beneficial route to take when locating the source of your company's problems:

Simplicity

The most significant and readily observable reason why the 5 whys analysis is ideal for a modern workplace is that it's incredibly simple to use. As long as you have plenty of basic information about the company's operations and processes, you can ask the simple question of 'why?' and find yourself at a number of answers quickly and easily. The use of complex data analysis or extensive qualitative research isn't required, you simply find answers by asking 'why?' five times, successively following up on your previous answer each time.

Depth

Alongside the simple methodology of the 5 whys analysis is the level of depth it goes into with relative ease. Surface-level analysis can be useful when looking for short term fixes to your problems, but by using a method that lets you go into great depth very quickly, you help yourself identify the causes of the problem and not just the symptoms. Additionally, there's no reason to stop at the 5 whys. The analysis method can merely be a gateway to solving your problem, with this flexibility allowing you to explore the issue in more detail when appropriate.

Granularity

When typically analysing an issue, you may not delve into a significant amount of detail. With the average workplace needing to respond to issues quickly, it can be appealing to simply address the symptoms and move on to the next stage, but this has the long-term effect of disrupting your company's unifying structure. The 5 whys analysis results in a granular assessment of your situation, one that takes the smallest details into account through your questions. It considers the effects of minor changes, like an adjustment in cleaning schedules or incorrectly replacing equipment, in contrast to a broader overview.

Related: Detail-oriented skills: Definition, tips and examples

Process analysis

The 5 whys analysis is well adapted to assessing problems with processes due to it essentially sharing the same structure. As processes work in steps no matter how large they may be, asking simple questions of each step of the process can more easily establish which part of the process is failing and why. Although you may only see an issue in the last step of a process, examining the previous stages allows you to identify where your problems began and how you might begin to resolve them at the earliest possible stage.

How to use the 5 whys analysis

Although the fundamentals of the 5 whys analysis are simple, successfully completing the process requires you to use the available information and actively think towards a solution. All of the relevant information for addressing the problem needs to be readily available and in the case of working in management, it's important to ensure that each member of your team is working towards the same goal. Otherwise, you risk missing small yet crucial details or implementing incorrect solutions. Using the 5 whys analysis effectively requires the following five steps:

1. Build a team

By assembling a team with a high level of insight into the problematic area, you build an instant knowledge base that covers as much ground as possible and which is more likely to respond to any issues that might be found. Furthermore, including both regular employees and members of management in the team is key. Although managers may believe in their experience, employees are the ones that work with the processes and who may have even designed them. They are therefore able to offer a separate level of insight.

Related: Team building skills: Definition and examples

2. Be concise or consider other methods of analysis

The 5 whys analysis works best if you're trying to define your problem as simply as possible. You restrict yourself to interrogating only a handful of aspects rather than opening the issue up to other parts of the company. If you're tempted to define a problem more broadly or you find that doing so is inevitable, you can quickly move on to another form of analysis.

Alternatively, if you're concerned about several different parts of your company, you can resolve this by getting each group to perform the analysis in isolation from one another. Otherwise, the information can be muddied and render the analysis void. By doing this, you can produce analyses from several areas in your business and evaluate each independently, before deciding how each element fits together with your business as a whole.

3. Ask why at least five times

Once you've laid a problem out, start asking why the problem exists. Don't discuss the symptoms of the problem, as this risks conflating them with the causes and confusing the information you have. If you discover several different causes, you can separate them into further lines of questioning to establish the cause of each. After you establish the cause of the initial problem, question the cause of that problem. By treating every layer of the issue as being just as important as every other layer, it becomes simpler to establish the final cause of the issue.

4. Evaluate your results

When you have the details of the issue, report these problems concisely and informatively. This requires you to go through each step of the issue, recording the answer to 'why?' at every stage and ultimately compiling a complete record of your thought process. Any viable solution obtained through the 5 whys analysis is one that can be clearly and rationally explained to anyone involved in the situation. At its most effective, with a clear evaluation, it leaves little room for doubt about what the cause of the problem is.

Creating the documentation of your thought process can be difficult when your line of thinking and questioning has several different 'prongs' or directions in which you might interpret an answer. In this case, you can create a 'tree', a simple visual tool of accounting for a few short answers at once, listing the causes and effects of each problem. This step is essential if you're addressing a multi-cause issue.

Related: How to write a problem statement (with an example)

5. Execute a solution

Once you've established the most likely causes of your problems, you can start to resolve them. Discussing granular details of causes makes them far simpler to resolve, with them often only requiring small changes in things like scheduling, equipment or maintenance. You may feel the effect of your solution quickly or it may take time to manifest. After implementing your solution, keep track of its progress through the process, using the 5 whys analysis again to address any problems it may run into. You can do this for each part of an issue with multiple causes.

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