The 5 Whys technique evolved from the Toyota Production System and soon became an important problem solving technique, that is used in all kinds of settings, not just business or manufacturing, to be able to solve problems.

The beauty of the 5 Whys technique is that it is incredibly straightforward and easily applied to problems. It is also frighteningly simple.

The technique is to take a problem, look at it in reverse i.e. look at the end product or result and then work backwards and at each stage ask the question “Why?” or, if this is not appropriate, ask “What caused this problem?”

Example Of the 5 Whys Technique

To illustrate how the technique can and should be applied, an example of its application is the best illustration.

In a scenario where a customer has rung up to complain that some of the items they ordered were faulty, the 5 Whys can be easily applied.

The end result is that the customer was supplied faulty goods and is unhappy with the standard of service that we provided.

1. Why did the customer get faulty goods?

Obviously some of the goods that were produced were not inspected for defects.

2. Why were all goods not inspected to insure that they were fit for purpose and that they could pass quality control?

Supervisors have not been applying quality control methods.

3. Why have supervisors not been applying these methods?

Due to pressure in terms of meeting large orders and some of the machinery being ‘down’ due to breaking down, supervisors have been under enormous pressure and have not been able to perform satisfactorily.

4. Why did some of the machines break down?

The routine maintenance that was scheduled for two months ago did not happen and as a result, some of the machines were not in perfect working order.

5. Why was the routine maintenance cancelled?

Due to suddenly having several large orders in, the decision was taken that routine maintenance could be put back for three months.
This information flow shows up three important issues;

1. There are peaks in production which means that at times the supervisors are too busy and that routine maintenance is not being carried out.
2. During peak times it is obvious that the supervisors are working flat out and whilst this may enable deadlines and timescales to be met, it means that quality control is suffering.
3. The routine maintenance is obviously required to ensure that the machines are in good working order and will not suddenly break down.

The obvious answers to these problems are to try and level out any demands in production so that there are less really busy times and supervisors are under less pressure.

More supervisors should be appointed to ensure that quality control standards can be met.

Routine or preventative maintenance should be carried out to keep the machines operational and reduce the amount of ‘downtime’ due to machines being broken.

Thus the technique of simply solving a problem by looking at it and constantly asking “Why?” is in fact a very effective one.

Usually it is limited to 5Whys because if you have asked “Why” 5 times but are nowhere near finding an answer, then it is likely that this is too complex a problem to be solved by this technique.

However it is speedy and even if the problem is too complex and requires a more in depth analysis, hardly any time is wasted at least trying out the 5 Whys approach. It really is remarkably good and there are in fact, a lot of problems that can be solved simply by repeatedly asking the pertinent question “Why?”

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