Five Whys


The 5 Whys refers to the practice of asking why (multiple times) why the situation has occurred in order to get to the root cause(s) of the problem. It is not always REQUIRED to ask 5 times, but that’s an average of how many times it might take to get to the root cause of a problem. The purpose is to illustrate the importance of digging down beneath the most obvious cause of the problem. Failure to determine the root cause will result in treating the symptoms of the problem instead of its cause, in which case, the same problems will recur over and over again.


  • The actual number of whys is not important so long as you get to the root cause.
  • There can be more than one cause to a problem. The important thing is to pick a solution to experiment with, work through the “if, then” statement to determine if desired results are likely.

Example 1

Problem Statement: The Washington Monument is disintegrating


  1. Why is the Monument disintegrating?
    1. Because of the use of harsh chemicals
  2. Why are harsh chemicals being used?
    1. To clean pigeon poop
  3. Why are there so many pigeons?
    1. They eat spiders and there are a lot of spiders at monument
  4. Why so many spiders?
    1. They eat moths and there are lots of moths at monument
  5. Why so many moths?
    1. They are attracted to the light at dusk.


Solution: Turn on the lights at a later time.

Example 1

Problem Statement: It takes hours to fill out a TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) application for the county/state.


  1. Why does it take so long?
    1. Because the TANF application is long and applicants are distracted by their children.
  2. Why are applicants distracted by their children while filling out the application?
    1. Because there is no place for children in the room and the children sit with their parents.
  3. Why are their children with them during the application process?
    1. Because they may not be able to afford a baby sitter.
  4. Why can’t they afford a babysitter?
    1. Because they are in need of TANF.


Solution: Provide babysitting service to TANF applicant. This simple solution resulted in a reduction in the application time.

A “5 Whys” Tree can be used to explore multiple Why’s. There could be numerous pathways to explore the reasons why a problem occurred and multiple causes to a problem; this tool can help visualize these multiple root causes. Click images below to expand.