Addressing Some Limitations of the 5 Why’s

Business Problem-Solving: Root-Cause Analysis

The Root Cause Approach

Root cause analysis is a popular problem-solving technique that seeks to bring out, and respond to, the deeper causes of a problem as opposed to only those that are visible on the surface (Okes, 2009). It allows one to look deeper into a problem so as to determine what the underlying causes are, and fix these before the problem escalates to an even bigger one (Okes, 2009). In so doing, one deals with the problem once and for all. Once the root causes are addressed, the chances of recurrence are very slim.

The Questioning to the Void Technique

The questioning to the void technique, commonly referred to as the 5 why’s technique, is one of the three approaches of root cause analysis. It basically entails asking the question ‘why’ five times so as to understand the exact nature of a problem (Anderson, 2009). It is believed that by repeating the question ‘why’ several times, one is able to peel away the surface causes of a problem, and ultimately identify the root cause. Once the root cause has been identified, then an appropriate counter-measure that effectively addresses the root cause can be determined.


We could take the case of a printing shop, which was supposed to have a client’s leaflets printed and delivered but failed to do so in time; as a result, the client refuses to pay for the same:

The Problem — the client has refused to pay for leaflets delivered

i. Why? The leaflets were delivered late, and were, therefore, not used for their intended purpose

ii. Why? The printing job took longer than the staff had anticipated iii. Why? Printer ink ran out in the course of printing

iv. Why? A lot of ink had been used up on a big order that was executed right before the order in question

v. Why? There was not enough ink in stock, and the staff could not order the same quickly enough

Root Cause: delayed delivery of ink, leading to slowed-down or stalled processes, and making it difficult to complete orders in time

Counter Measure: find an ink supplier who can make deliveries on very short notice

Based on this illustration, we can deduce several advantages of the questioning-to-the-void technique, and by extension, real cause analysis. First, it is easy to use and apply, especially if the assessor has a feel of what the causes of the problem are likely to be (Okes, 2009). Moreover, it is highly flexible and readily fits into a number of other common business processes — for instance, the 5 why’s technique is used i) for quality improvement in the analysis stage of the Six Sigma process; and ii) for identification and elimination of wasteful practices in lean manufacturing. Thirdly, the technique ensures that problems are resolved once and for all, and that no further costs are spent in addressing the same problem in the future (Dew, 2002).

Despite its inherent advantages, real cause analysis may be unattractive to most organizations for a number of reasons. First, it provides no surety that the issue identified as the root cause is actually the root cause (Anderson, 2009). In other words, it does not provide a basis for the assessor to test the sufficiency of the factor identified as the root cause. For this reason, multiple people using the technique to evaluate the same problem are likely to come with totally different root causes, depending on what the assessor identifies as causes (Anderson, 2009). Moreover, the technique assumes that all problems have a single underlying cause, which may not always be the case, especially in very complex problems, which are likely to have multiple contributing factors. Towards this end, real cause analysis may not effectively resolve technical problems with more than one sufficient cause, which is dangerous given that most organizations today operate on the global scene, and most problems are, therefore, too complex to be narrowed down to one sufficient cause (Anderson, 2009).

A third reason why organizations may shun real-cause analysis is that the method may not be all that simple after all, especially if the assessor lacks technical training to prevent the evaluation from being affected by deductive reasoning (Anderson, 2009). What happens in these cases is — the assessor asks ‘why’ the first time, and he takes note of all the possible causes; and then he asks ‘why’ again to identify the factors underlying each of the identified causes, at which point he is likely to begin falling back to deduction, and will then end up with multiple causes that may appear equally important (Anderson, 2009). This, therefore, only means that the 5 why’s technique may only be effective in the resolution of moderately-difficult or simple problems, and not critical and complex issues that are likely to have multiple causes. In such cases, the cause-and-effect technique, which has a much broader scope, may be more effective.

The root cause approach, therefore, in as much as it is relatively simple to apply and helps to address the very root cause of the problem, may not be very effective in evaluating problems in this age of globalization – particularly because organizations have relatively complex structures and cultures, and the resultant problems are likely to be too complex to be associated with just one single sufficient cause. It only ought to be used as a supplementary method of evaluating simple problems.


Anderson, S. (2009). Root Cause Analysis: Addressing Some Limitations of the 5 Why’s. Quality Digest. Retrieved 17 February 2015 from’s.html#

Dew, J.R. (2002). Using Root Cause Analysis to Make the Patient Care System Safe. The University of Alabama. Retrieved 18 February 2015 from

Okes, D. (2009). Root-Cause Analysis: The Core of Problem-Solving and Corrective Action. Milwaukee, WI: ASQ Press.

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