The 5 Whys of Lean

What is the ‘5 Whys of Lean’?

Every so often, unexpected events occur. Wires get crossed, systems break, and legacy processes don’t live up to current expectations. When things don’t go according to plan, there’s a simple yet powerful technique to quickly discover the root of the problem: the 5 Whys. By using the 5 Whys, Lean teams are able to move past blame, think beyond the specific context of a problem, and identify a proper, sustainable solution to resolve the issue.

Origin of the 5 Whys

One of the early pioneers of Lean thinking and the architect of the Toyota Production System in the 1950s, Taiichi Ohno, discusses the 5 Whys of Lean in his book, Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production. Ohno introduces the idea as “the basis of Toyota’s scientific approach … by repeating why 5 times, the nature of the problem as well as the solution becomes clear.”

How the 5 Whys Helps Teams

The 5 Whys are helpful for many reasons. By conducting a root cause analysis, the 5 Whys allows you to identify lasting solutions, rather than settling for temporarily ‘patching up’ problems, which can lead to a mountain of technical debt. And, if your teams are already practicing and thinking Lean, 5 Whys provide an opportunity to naturally diagnose and eliminate sources of waste. Teams can think beyond the specific context of an issue to see even greater opportunities for improvement. Using the 5 Whys, Lean teams are able to shift the focus away from blaming the person ‘responsible’ for an issue and focus instead on improving the process itself.

Getting Started with the 5 Whys

Getting started with the 5 Whys is simple: identify a problem facing your team and ask, “why is this problem happening?” Record the answer and repeat the process four more times or until your answers become absurd. When your answers become absurd, it’s time to find a solution–no matter how small–to improve the process and prevent the issue from recurring.

Some experts and Lean practitioners recommend appointing a 5 Whys master–someone who will run the post-mortem discussion, ask why 5 times, and assign the solutions to the team members. Other teams find it helpful to take turns facilitating 5 Whys discussions. Your team may decide not to implement formalized 5 whys discussions, rather choosing to build the 5 Whys into daily conversations about work.

Remember that this simple, easy-to-remember thinking tool is always available whenever you are facing a problem without a clear solution. Pausing to reflect on the 5 Whys could save your team time, effort, and frustration, while helping you identify sustainable solutions to your persistent problems.

A Real-Life Example

Here’s a real-life example of how LeanKit uses the 5 Whys (first published on our blog, here). For context, our mobile team had a problem in which all delivery tasks were manual, making delivering bugs to QA incredibly time-consuming. Here’s how we solved the problem using the 5 Whys of Lean.

The problem: Delivering bug fixes to QA is hard

Why? — It’s time-consuming to produce new application release candidates

Why? — Build steps need careful attention

Why? — If you make a mistake, you have to start all over again

Why? — There’s a specific build sequence for delivering successful release candidates

Why? — That’s how mobile platforms work

Why? — Because …

If the team hadn’t worked through the Lean 5 Whys, the team may have prematurely decided that the people on the team responsible for delivering bug fixes weren’t moving quickly enough. In reality, the work they were responsible for was tedious, repeatable, and prone to human error: a perfect candidate for automation. The team decided to automate the process of delivering bug fixes to QA, drastically reducing lead time and improving work quality and morale.

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