Listen, nobody's perfect. Sometimes mistakes are made. Goals go unreached. Big swings turn into big duds.
It's painful. And it can be especially painful when it happens to your team. As a leader, it's important to know how can you help your people recover, regroup, and refocus.
That's where the 5 Whys root-cause analysis exercise can save the day.
Think about it this way: Most things, from nuclear fission to your underperforming ad campaign, happen as the result of cause-and-effect relationships.
In a 5 Whys analysis, you’ll follow those relationships to identify the root cause of a problem so you can reach a better outcome next time. It’s a simple but powerful technique that helps your team get past surface-level answers and improve how you work in a lasting, meaningful way.
What is a 5 Whys root cause analysis?
A 5 Whys root cause analysis is an analytical technique pioneered by Toyota for investigating the root cause of a workplace problem. By asking "why" five times, your team will dig deep to uncover the true source of an issue, rather than latching on to obvious answers that may merely be symptoms of underlying issues.
With a deeper understanding of what caused the issue, you can better prevent reocurrences and also create a foundation for resilient, future-proofed ways of working.
When to use a 5 Whys analysis
A 5 Why analysis works best for simple to moderately complex problems that are within your team's sphere of control.
For just-right problems (not too basic, not too complex)
Super-simple problems with a clear fix don’t need this level of analysis. For example, if people keep forgetting important passwords, you could get everyone access to a secure password manager and see if that solves the problem.
And if you’re dealing with a nuclear meltdown or company-wide failure, a 5 Why analysis won’t cut it. To understand big, complex problems like these, you’ll need to take a multi-pronged approach, likely collecting data independently and working with multiple different groups. However, you could certainly make 5 Whys part of that larger analysis, or use it as a starting point for further investigation.
But if you need to figure out why the latest ad campaign was so underwhelming, a 5 Whys exercise is the way to go.
For problems your team understands
Obviously, asking why is only going to work if your team actually knows why!
If the problem’s root cause is beyond their knowledge and control, no amount of brainstorming will uncover it. That’s why you should save the 5 Why analysis for outcomes your team was heavily, if not solely, responsible for.
For example, if your underperforming campaign was created by an external design team, asking why it flopped isn’t going to get you very far. But if you dreamed up the whole thing yourselves, you’ll probably learn a lot from this method.
How to run a 5 Whys analysis
Running a 5 Whys root cause analysis might sound like intense detective work, but it's actually pretty easy.
If you’ve done a team retrospective or brainstorming session, you can run a 5 Whys meeting. All you’ll need is a whiteboard and markers if you’re meeting in person, or a collaboration tool like Trello if you’re meeting virtually. Use our template to get started quickly.
1. Start with a problem
Start with one problem statement you’d like to investigate. This could be something you’re dealing with right now, or something that’s already over, but still needs to be addressed and unpacked.
You’ll use this meeting to dig into why this situation happened. What was the root cause?
Example: Our fundraising campaign missed its goal.
2. Set up your meeting
If you’re meeting in person, divide your whiteboard into five columns. Label the first column with your problem statement, phrased as “Why did [problem] happen?”
If you’re using our dedicated template, just enter your first problem statement into the respective column.
3. Get your team ready
Explain the 5 Why analysis method to your team. Share that by asking why together, you’re trying to look into the problem more deeply, beyond the most obvious causes.
Make sure everyone understands that this is a collaborative exercise, and there aren’t any wrong answers. The goal is to improve next time, not blame anyone for what already happened.
4. Brainstorm your why
Jump off from your first problem statement into five minutes of brainstorming. Ask everyone to consider what contributing factors led to the outcome.
Ask people to contribute possible answers in the column below this first question.
People should toss out as many ideas as they can here—it's important not to overthink it. You’ll edit and evaluate their answers in the next step.
- Our click-through rate was too low.
- Our digital leads didn’t convert.
- The campaign wasn’t engaging for our followers.
5. Follow one answer
Together, single out one of the answers. Choose one that seems especially interesting, or worth investigating further.
Here, it's a good idea to use voting to make this choice faster and easier. If you're using the Trello template, people can vote by hovering over their selection and typing "v." The votes will tally directly on the board.
6. Repeat this 3 more times
Rephrase the winning answer as the new problem statement. Just like you did in step three, ask your team, "Why did this happen?" and come up with possible causes in the exact same way.
Go through the process again, repeating steps four and five until you’ve asked why a total of five times.
The fifth problem statement should be your root cause.
Example: The campaign wasn’t engaging because the copy didn’t feel emotional enough.
7. Brainstorm solutions
Before you wrap up the meeting, ask everyone to brainstorm some ways to address the root cause.
Choose one or two solutions that seem the most promising, and assign each to one person, who will oversee putting them into practice. Come up with a plan to check back in and see how things are progressing at scheduled intervals in the future.
Example: Jason will research some ways to make copy more emotionally compelling. He’ll report back with examples in two weeks.
Tips for a great 5 Why analysis
The 5 Whys technique is just a framework—there are plenty of ways to adapt it to your team’s individual needs. But if the problem had serious negative impacts on your team, customers, or business goals, you might find these steps extra helpful.
Bring in a facilitator
If the problem is sensitive or emotionally-charged (like a team conflict) try finding an external facilitator to run the meeting.
Because they have a more objective viewpoint, they’ll be able to keep things neutral and make sure no one feels upset, attacked, or blamed.
Run it backwards
To double check if your root cause makes sense, try running it backwards.
Start with your final statement, then use "therefore" to connect it with previous causes in the chain. Do you still have a reasonable sense of causality?
Steer clear of blame
Never use carelessness, human error, or other blame-y statements as your root cause.
Even if errors did happen, they’re nearly always a symptom of something greater. For example, maybe people didn’t get adequate training or were assigned an unrealistic amount of work.
Go beyond 5
If you’re not satisfied with your final statement, it’s OK to ask ‘why’ more than 5 times, or run through the meeting more than once to identify more than one root cause.
This can also help you use 5 Why analysis as one part of your strategy to tackle large, complex problems.
Try breakout style
If you have a large group, try a ‘breakout style’ analysis to get even more answers.
After the first brainstorming session, split into groups, and let each one select an answer to start with. Then, have each group follow the steps on their own, allowing you to find more root causes and dig exponentially deeper.
Keep asking why
It’s disappointing when things don’t go how you wanted at work. But these unwanted outcomes can be powerful opportunities for learning—if we approach them with the right tools.
Frameworks like 5 Why analysis show your team that problems aren’t personal failings, nor are they anything to stress over. Instead, they’re an opportunity to dig deeper, look more closely, and figure out how to create a different cause and effect next time.
Good or bad, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Find us on Twitter (@trello)!