Doing root cause analysis the right way

Photo by Emily Mortimer

The concept of 5 whys is frequently trotted out as a formula for root cause analysis. Its proponents claim, “Just ask ‘why’ 5 times, and you will fully understand the root cause to a problem you are having!” The same concept is frequently applied to the process of researching and planning new solutions that your business can offer the market.

In case you aren’t familiar with the approach, the idea is to dig into surface-level problems to make sure actually understand the root causes. Asking “why?” 5 times as you dig deeper for each is the core of the method. Suppose our revenue is down 10% for the quarter:

  1. Why? -> Because we lost 10% of our customers
  2. Why? -> Because our customer service level suffered
  3. Why? -> Because we don’t have enough people to answer the phone quickly
  4. Why? -> Because our customer service agents are leaving for other opportunities
  5. Why? -> Because our pay and benefits aren’t attractive enough

While it is important to dig into root causes, anybody who has spent time with small children knows two things about asking questions like this: 1) there can be a lot more than 5 layers of “why?” underneath any given question, and 2) the answers sometimes stop being useful long before you run out of questions to ask.

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