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5 WHYS -- Root Cause Analysis Examples, Techniques & Templates in Lean

Updated on March 01, 2015
5 Whys analysis
5 Whys analysis

Root cause analysis (RCA) is an effective method for getting to the underlying cause of problems and developing permanent countermeasures. Learn the meaning of root cause analysis with examples and templates.

Root Cause Analysis Definition

Root cause analysis is a system for arriving at the hidden causes of problems. This definition implies that root-cause analysis should only be done when things get out of hand. While this is the main reason for doing a root cause analysis, the method can also be applied to situations where there is an unexpectedly good performance within a system.

In any organization, the process of finding out why an incident or problem occurred is premised on three fundamental questions:

  • What has happened?
  • Why has the incident occurred?

What can be done to prevent a similar occurrence in the future

Mapping the Causes

The term “root cause analysis” leads many people to assume that it is an exercise that seeks to expose a “main cause of the problem”- meaning that there is only one thing that causes problems. This is not correct in that one will realize there are many issues at play that contribute to the problems one encounters in organizations. One should therefore not try to get to just one cause because such an approach will most definitely not yield the desired results.

A good analogy would be to think of a problem as the part of a plant that is above the soil while the causes are the roots. Using this analogy, one can clearly see that the root causes are deep, numerous and spread in many directions.

Cause mapping is a process that follows three fundamental and important steps:

  • Problem investigation in relation to already predetermined goals. Are the problems preventing you from achieving the organizational goals? At this point you determine whether the problem at hand is negatively affecting the achievement of set objectives and then craft a clear problem statement based on these observations
  • Visual analysis of the problem using mapping techniques so as to have a clear picture of the most significant causes and how they interact with each other.
  • Selection of the best solutions to problems that are having a negative impact on the attainment of stated goals.

Importance of 5 Whys Root Cause Analysis?

5whys root-cause analysis is an important component of the kaizen philosophy of continuous improvement. It is a simple method of developing countermeasures to common problems that ail any organization. It involves drilling down to the core of a problem by interrogating each apparent cause until the real and hidden problem is brought to the surface.

By conducting a root-cause analysis of a problem, one is able to reach simple yet effective solutions without resorting to complicated statistical analysis.

It is a way of looking beyond the apparent cause of a problem to get to the hidden cause that, once solved, can result in a more effective countermeasure.

The countermeasure that is arrived at using a 5 whys analysis prevents recurrence of a problem much better than one that is arrived at by just looking at the surface causes.

Problem solving within the lean organization

The 5 whys root-cause analysis is part of a comprehensive lean problem-solving methodology that involves seven distinct steps:

  • Initial problem perception is the first thing that comes to mind when you observe a problem immediately it occurs. At this stage, the problem appears to be complex, vague and too big to solve.
  • Problem clarification means defining what the real problem is through closer observation so as to have a clear problem statement
  • Problem location is the identification of the area where the problem is happening. This is the point of cause of a problem and is the starting point of getting to the source or root cause of the problem
  • Root-cause analysis is aimed at identifying the real reason a problem is occurring by drilling down from the surface causes and asking why of each subsequent answer
  • Countermeasures are explored and developed for the problem based on the cause as identified through analysis. These are designed to make sure that a problem does not recur in the future
  • Evaluation of effectiveness of the countermeasures is done and any necessary adjustments are made in case they are found to be ineffective
  • Standardization of solutions that are found to have effectively solved the problem and these standards serve as a tool for teaching and further improvement.

Examples of 5 whys root-cause analysis

The following examples illustrate how the 5 why analysis can be used to effectively analyse problems so as to get permanent solutions to them.

Problem statement: New email system is not being utilized by employees and they are constantly complaining about its efficacy.

Why is the new email system causing frustration and low acceptance rates among employees?

  • Answer: Employees are finding it hard to understand how the system works

Why are employees not understanding the new system?

  • Answer: Proper training was not given on how to use it.

Why was there no training?

  • Answer: The IT manager did not plan properly and never got feedback from staff before implementing the program

Why did the IT manager not plan properly?

  • Answer: He did not get support and direction from senior management

Why there no support and direction from senior management?

  • Answer: There no effective internal processes and discipline within the company

Why is there no discipline and effective processes?

  • Answer: Senior management has not made it a priority to build a culture of discipline that encourages effective internal processes

As can be seen in the above example, the real cause of a problem arrived at in the end of the enquiry is very different from the answer given at the beginning. If senior management take the appropriate action to have effective internal processes in place, the implementation of any new program will always be a success.

The following is an example of a root-cause analysis of a fabrication unit that was not producing as per the set hourly goals.

Problem statement: The hourly goals of the fabrication unit are not been met

Why are the hourly production goals in the fabrication unit not been met?

  • Answer: Enough parts are not been produced

Why are enough parts not been produced?

  • Answer: There is a lot of production down-time

Why is there down-time in production?

  • Answer: There are cycle-time losses

Why are there cycle-time losses?

  • Answer: Loading of machines is taking too long

Why is the loading of the machines taking long?

  • Answer: Operator has to walk long distances for materials

The last answer is the root cause of the problem of why the fabrication unit was not meeting its hourly production goals. This can be simply solved if the materials are brought closer to the operator or if the plant introduces a replenishment system of using Mizusumashi.

Principles of effective root-cause analysis

As there can be many potential causes to a particular problem, it is necessary to narrow them down to the ones which have the biggest impact on the problem. In analysing problems, it is always prudent to adhere to the following principles:

  • Preconceived notions of what the causes of a problem are should not be allowed to cloud the process as this will result in poor quality results
  • Go to the Gemba when a problem occurs and resist the temptation of trying to resolve the problem from the comfort of your office.
  • Stop only when you are convinced that you have reached a reasonably satisfactory answer to the cause
  • Analysis must be comprehensive so as to capture a variety of causes which are then filtered for the most likely ones
  • Attack problems that are within the scope of your function so as to avoid passing responsibility to others who may not be close to the problem
  • Corrective actions must be clearly defined and responsibility assigned to the right people

Root Cause Analysis: 5 Whys Examples, Templates, Tools & Methodology

5 whys examples, tools and templates to better understand the meaning of the root cause analysis methodology. Learn the basics of root cause mapping for development of permanent countermeasures to problems.

Root Cause Analysis 5 Whys

Problems will always be there -- a fact that true be it in business of in normal life situations. Solving these problems often involves first asking what caused them then trying to come up with solutions. In many cases that is where the process ends for most organizations and individuals. The root cause analysis that is performed by many people does not yield the intended result because it is shallow and reactive.

Most problem solving approaches are carried out in a haphazard manner which means that the problems will surely recur at some point in the future. Root cause analysis, when done in the right way, yields solutions that are permanent making it difficult for the repeat of the same problems. It gets to the core of the interacting circumstances that surround a problem by drilling down in a systematic manner starting from the apparent cause and going to the real causes.

But root-cause analysis can be a misleading term in itself because it implies that there is only one holy-grail cause to a problem that people must look for. This could not be further from the truth because the reality is that problems occur due to a wide variety of causes that are play with each other. For each possible cause, there could be up to a hundred others that are contributing to the problem. The root cause analysis aims at finding the most important causes that have a significant contribution to a problem.

For example, if an employee steps on a mat and slips thereby injuring their back, a root cause analysis would reveal that the mat was the cause of the problem because it was on a wet floor. But stopping at that would not completely solve the problem as there is a likelihood that another employee would face the same accident. A proper root-cause analysis would not only ask why the mat was placed on the wet floor, but would investigate why the floor was wet in the first place.

It would then emerge that proper cleaning procedures where not followed and a further investigation would provide that employees involved in cleaning should be properly trained. While this is a simple explanation (a more detailed methodology will be shown further in the article) the point being made here is that there are many causes which must be further investigated in order that proper solutions are found to a problem.

The Plant - Roots Analogy

When trying to explain what root-cause analysis really is, a good analogy would be to look at a plant and compare a problem as the part that is above ground while the causes are the roots. As we all know, a plant has an intricate root structure that spreads in all directions and for our purposes they represent various causes in terms of level and depth.

Root cause analysis is the process of digging below the surface to reach to the “roots” of the problem which are varied in degree of depth and spread. The further one digs, the closer one is to the real cause of the problem and the higher the chances of developing meaningful countermeasures.

The best way of approaching the root cause analysis process is to look at the problem from the perspective of the impact it is having on already established organizational goals. So when a problem occurs, to get a comprehensive problem statement one will ask themselves which goal is been negatively impacted by it. After arriving at the most appropriate problem statement, you create a visual map that will show the causes in order of degree of impact to the problem. It is on this basis then that proper solutions are then suggested and these should help in ensuring that there is no recurrence in the future.

The root cause map is drawn starting with a simple cause and effect diagrams that serve as the building blocks for further exploration of the problem. The problem statement is placed at the extreme right corner and you keep on doing a 5 Whys analysis until you reach a satisfactory level of answers that give you a close enough reason to believe that it is the root-cause to the problem.

Each answer to the “Why?” question forms the basis of the next question – in effect the effect becomes a cause that needs to be interrogated by asking why of it. Writing down five whys is one of the most effective way of performing a root-cause analysis as it gives a clear picture as to the cause and effect relationship.

A good way of going about the whole process is to ask what was required to produce an effect which will be a cause to the next level of questioning. By doing this, a comprehensive map is gradually built and after the exercise it will be clear of what the true causes of the problem are.

5 Whys Examples

The following examples show how the root-cause analysis can be used to find the real causes of problems. Each of the examples have been taken from real-life situations in firms that have been practising lean manufacturing for a long time.

5 Whys Analysis Example of a Back Injury

In this example, an employee slipped and injured their back after stepping on a mat in a factory. As required under OSHA, the company had to fill out an incident report with possible countermeasures that will be put in place to prevent future recurrence of the problem. The root cause analysis of the injury and incident took the following format.

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