Problem solving: 

The 5 whys


When looking to solve a problem, it helps to begin at the end result, reflect on what caused that, and question the answer five times. This elementary and often effective approach to problem solving promotes deep thinking through questioning, and can be adapted quickly and applied to most problems.


Problem Solving: The 5 Whys


Complementary methods for Workshops



Group size: 2-10 

Facilitation level: Beginner Comfort zone
Materials: Pens/Paper/Whiteboard/Flipchart

Most obviously and directly, the Five Whys technique relates to the principle of systematic problem-solving: without the intent of the principle, the technique can only be a shell of the process. Hence, there are three key elements to effective use of the Five Whys technique: (i) accurate and complete statements of problems, (ii) complete honesty in answering the questions, (iii) the determination to get to the bottom of problems and resolve them.

For every effect there is a cause. But the results chain between the two is fairly long and becomes finer as one moves from inputs to activities, outputs, outcome, and impact. In due course, when a problem appears, the temptation is strong to blame others or external events. Yet, the root cause of problems often lies closer to home.

The Five-Whys exercise is vastly improved when applied by a team and there are five basic steps to conducting it:

Gather a team and develop the problem statement in agreement. This helps bring the group together and focus around the specific challenge. Write it at the top of the paper/whiteboard/flipchart.

Ask the first “why” of the team: why is this or that problem taking place? There will probably be three or four sensible answers: record them all on a flip chart or whiteboard, or use index cards taped to a wall.

Ask four more successive “whys,” repeating the process for every statement on the flip chart, whiteboard, or index cards. Post each answer near its “parent”. Follow up on all plausible answers. You will have identified the root cause when asking “why” yields no further useful information.           

Among the dozen or so answers to the last asked “why” look for systemic causes of the problem. Discuss these and settle on the most likely systemic cause. Follow the team session with a debriefing and show the product to others to confirm that they see logic in the analysis.

Once you have your root problem statement, ask the group how they would like to proceed to solve it.

Remote Advice

Online tool: Miro / Mural



Serrat, Olivier (2017). "The Five Whys Technique". Knowledge Solutions. pp. 307–310. doi:10.1007/978-981-10-0983-9_32. ISBN 978-981-10-0982-2.