Five Whys, explained

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The “Five Whys” technique has emerged as a crucial tool for problem-solving and continuous improvement. This technique is based on asking “Why?” five times to dive deep into the root cause of a problem. It is a method that turns a challenge into an opportunity for growth and learning. Harnessing the power of the Five Whys can enhance your problem-solving capabilities. In this article I will delve into the technique and it’s application.

Five Whys, explained
Annie Lennox – Why (YouTube)

What is the Five Whys technique?

The Five Whys is a questioning technique developed in the 1930s by Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Industries. Its main objective is to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem. The method involves asking the question “Why?” five times or more until the root cause of a problem is identified. This iterative interrogation technique helps teams to avoid the common trap of addressing only the symptoms rather than the underlying issue.

Tips for effective implementation of the Five Whys technique

  • Establish a culture where team members feel safe to express their thoughts without fear of blame. This environment encourages open, honest dialogue, crucial for the success of the Five Whys technique.
  • Ensure the involvement of team members who are directly connected to the issue. Their firsthand experience is invaluable in uncovering the true root cause.
  • Keep the discussion centered on the problem, not on individuals’ actions. This approach maintains a constructive and objective perspective.
  • Be specific, encourage specificity in responses. Vague answers like “because of a communication issue” should be further probed for more precise information.
  • Know when to stop! While the technique is called the Five Whys, sometimes fewer or more questions may be needed. The key is to stop when a reasonable root cause is identified that the team can act upon.
  • Employing visual aids like a whiteboard or digital tools to visually map the cause-and-effect relationship can enhance understanding and engagement.
  • Make it actionable! Identifying the root cause is only half the battle. It’s essential to follow up with action plans to address the identified issues.

Case study: practical application in a Scrum Team

In Scrum and Agile environments, where adaptability and continuous improvement are paramount, the Five Whys can be an invaluable tool. Scrum Masters could utilize it during Sprint Retrospectives to analyze Sprints that did not meet expectations. After identifying a Sprint issue, the team collectively asks “Why?” repeatedly until they arrive at the fundamental cause. This practice fosters a deeper understanding and promotes a more comprehensive solution. By understanding the root cause of the Sprint’s issues, the team can implement effective changes to improve future sprints.

Let’s give an example of the application of the Five Whys techgnique! Imagine a Scrum team that consistently misses sprint deadlines. Applying the Five Whys might reveal a pattern like this:

  1. Why are we missing deadlines?“…because we are not completing all the tasks…”
  2. Why are we not completing tasks?“…because we are overestimating our capacity…”
  3. Why are we overestimating our capacity?“…because we don’t have a clear understanding of our velocity…”
  4. Why don’t we understand our velocity?“…because we haven’t been tracking our work effectively…”
  5. Why haven’t we been tracking our work effectively?“…because our current tool does not meet our needs, and there is a lack of training on how to use it effectively.”

From this analysis, the Scrum Team can see that the issue is not just about missing deadlines; it’s rooted in how they estimate and track their work. Solutions might include adopting a new tracking tool and providing training to the team on effective usage.


The Five Whys technique is more than just a tool; it’s a mindset that encourages curiosity and continuous improvement. In the ever-evolving landscape of Agile and Scrum, it equips teams with the ability to delve deeper into problems, uncover their roots, and forge effective solutions. For Scrum Masters and their teams, mastering this technique can lead to a stronger understanding of team dynamics, and an overall more efficient and effective workflow.

Remember, the ultimate goal of the Five Whys is not just to find a solution but to foster a culture of learning and continuous improvement. By applying this technique with an open mind and a collaborative spirit, Scrum teams can turn a challenge into a stepping stone towards greater success.

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