5 “Whys” Analysis


Whether you use it in a post-mortem or simply to explore a problem space, 5 whys analysis helps you get at the root cause of a problem, and think about what part of the problem you're really there to solve.

AND I NEED THIS... WHY?

Sometimes it's easy to fixate on one aspect of a problem. Or to see a symptom as the problem, when really the cause of that symptom is actually what you need to deal with. And sometimes you go straight ahead and jump into solution mode based on an assumed problem.

The 5 whys play methodically takes you deeper to get to the heart of a problem and really understand how it hits home for your customers. It's also great for blame-free root cause analysis after an emergency or incident.

WHO SHOULD BE INVOLVED?

You can do this on your own. But doing it as a group means you get diverse perspectives, which usually results in a better sense of where the root of the problem lays. 

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"5 whys" analysis helps you get to the root of a problem.
People

1 - 10

Time

30 min

Difficulty

Easy

Running the play

5 whys analysis is a great way to understand a customer problem and figure out which aspects your team can work on. It's also useful for root-cause exploration after an incident – but it's not about throwing people under the bus. 

MATERIALS
  • A4 / letter-size paper
  • Whiteboard
  • Markers or pens
  • Timer
  • Rubber chicken
Step

Form a problem statement (5 min)

Poll the room (if you're doing this with your team) and ask them what problem you're here to analyse. Write all responses down on a whiteboard.

Be ready for intentional and unintentional bias in the answers you discuss here. Make sure the room doesn't try to steer away from an uncomfortable truth, or try to reach an easy consensus.

If there isn't one clear problem, you'll need to agree on which problem to work on – which on it's own should be pretty revealing! Once you're agreed, write the succinct problem statement on the board.

Step

Basic 5 whys analysis (15 min)

Ask the questions: "Why is / are / does [your problem statement]?"  Write your answer(s) below the problem statement. These becomes your second problem statement.

Ask again: "Why is / are / does [your second problem statement]?" Write those responses below the second row.

You get the idea... keep going until you've asked "why" five or more times, even if it feels awkward and facetious. Most of the time we don't think hard enough about the factors behind problems, so keep pushing until you feel like you're at the root of the problem.

FOR EXAMPLE...

Here's some 5 whys analysis output from one of our customer support teams. 

Step

Further analyze the root cause (10 min)

You've got a good understanding of the problem by this point. Now it's time to pick it apart.

As a team, discuss your line of reasoning. Odds are, you've traced an acute problem to a much larger problem space, or a much harder problem to tackle. Listen carefully between the lines in your team's discussion – make sure all are agreed that you've locked onto the right problem.

ANTI-PATTERN

You jump to solutions too soon, and you think you're done.

Really? Ok, so let's test that 'solution'. Write the solution statement on the board and try the "5 so whats?" Asking "So what?" again and again should reveal the solution's true value (or lack thereof).

Nailed it?

Be sure to run a full Health Monitor session or checkpoint with your team to see if you're improving.

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Variations

IMPACT ANALYSIS

Instead of asking "Why is / are / does [your problem statement]?", ask: "What happens when [your problem statement]?" Framing the question this way reveals the effects(s) of a problem on customers or your team. This is really helpful when you need to brainstorm solutions.

Follow-ups

Keep your question "chain" handy. It's good food for thought, and good for sense-checking progress in the project. E.g., half-way into the project, are you still solving the problem that you agreed upon?

Transfer the problem to an experience canvas or project poster, if you're working on one. Write the problem you're tackling in the 'Problem' section, and use that to help you build out the rest of the canvas or poster.

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