5-Why – An Image Worth a Thousand Words

Study this image for a few seconds and you will understand 5-Why and its intended purpose (download the PDF here).

Also visit, The Best 5-Why Template page for an Excel template, and the 5-Why Training PPT page for a Powerpoint training presentation.

What is 5-Why? The 5-Why approach continues to ask “Why?” when a problem occurs, until the root cause is arrived at. Here is a graphic of our now-famous forklift 5-Why, where a hydraulic hose burst.

The number five is a rule of thumb for the number of Why’s required to reach the root cause, but asking “Why?” five times versus three, four, or six times is not a rigid requirement.

When Speedy Responses Get us in Trouble

We humans like to be as efficient as possible in everything we do, and this wonderful trait helps us in most situations: minimal effort for maximum results.

But our quest for efficiency can result in a shallow problem solving approach, and the result is a constant hustle that makes us feel like heroes in the moment, but provides no lasting value. This is why we use 5-Why.

The “low-value hustle” can paralyze companies and individuals when new challenges and competitive pressures arise. The result is slower processes (due to things going wrong on a regular basis) and increased costs, which customers always notice. Oh yes and the biggest impact of all: an exhausted and frustrated workforce that “just can’t handle one more thing.”

So while 5-Why is a simple tool that can be understood in a few seconds, its implementation is more daunting and requires strong leadership and personal discipline on everyone’s part.

Two Companies, Two Responses

Picture a scenario where two aftermarket seat-cover manufacturers experience the same problem: a customer orders a product online, and receives the wrong item. The cause, while not readily apparent, is a mislabeled product.

Here are are the responses and internal investigations completed by each manufacturer:

Jack Rabbit Industries

Looking at the example above, the wrong item was shipped to a customer due to the product being mislabeled. JRI like many organizations would take the complaint at face value and ship a replacement product. Done.

“We shipped the replacement product the same day that we got the complaint. Great work, Team!” Sadly, JRI assumed that one of their stock pickers was having a bad day and pulled the wrong product. “It was a one-off.”

It took several weeks for the problem to escalate (through more occurrences with more customers) enough to get JRI’s attention. And by that time, a lot of damage had been done:

  • Three very upset customers
  • A worn-out customer service team
  • Several hundred mislabeled products in the pipeline
  • Two of JRI’s best people being pulled away from their projects for six weeks to handle the fallout

Lean Enterprises Inc.

Lean Enterprises on the other hand asked, “How could this happen?,” and began investigating by asking the customer for a picture of what was received, at which point they realized that the product had been mislabeled.

“We could have easily assumed a stock picking error, but the pickers were doing their jobs properly, matching the product label with the order.”

Lean Enterprises then dug into why the product was mislabeled and found that the labels were being batch processed, and there were products and labels lying around the labeling area. It was easy to see how a product could become mislabeled.

Lean Enterprises ended up solving the problem by implementing single-piece-flow in the labeling area. One product and one label are presented to the labeling person at a time. and the chaotic unlabeled product and label situation exists no more.

As an added bonus, the single piece flow solution increased the labeling capacity by 32%, since the employees were no longer wasting time searching through inventory.

Lean enterprises solved the problem in two days and ended up with a more efficient process as a bonus.