You know what the problem is, but you can’t solve it? The 5 Whys technique will allow you to quickly dissect the problem and reveal its underlying causes.

The 5 Whys technique is one of the most effective tools for root cause analysis in the Lean management arsenal.

Asking is fundamental

Kids ask a lot of questions. In fact, studies have shown that kids ask more than 300 questions a day! Here’s an even bigger truth: kids should be encouraged to ask more questions—not fewer! This is how children learn. Without questions, learning slows.

What’s more, asking questions is the secret weapon to facilitate learning and problem-solving in your organization. Asking “Why?” may be a favorite technique of your 3-year-old child in driving you crazy, but it could teach you a valuable Six Sigma quality lesson.

Asking to get to the root cause

When your company has a problem—such as server crashes or production quality—you want to get to the root cause of what caused it to fail—and then fix that root cause.

The 5 Whys is a technique used in the Analyze phase of the Six Sigma DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) methodology.

Eric Ries, author of Lean Startup said: “Behind every seemingly technical problem is actually a human problem waiting to be found.”

Asking is simple—but not always easy

The 5 Whys is a great Six Sigma tool that doesn’t involve data segmentation, hypothesis testing, regression, or other advanced statistical tools—and in many cases can be completed without a data collection plan.

The architect of the Toyota Production System, Taiichi Ohno, described The 5 Whys method as “the basis of Toyota’s scientific approach by repeating why five times to find the nature of the problem, as well as its solution, becomes clear.”

By repeatedly asking the question “Why” (five is a good rule of thumb), you can peel away the layers of symptoms which can lead to the root cause of a problem. Very often the apparent reason for a problem will lead you to another question. Although this technique is called “5 Whys,” you may find that you will need to ask the question fewer or more times than five before you find the issue related to a problem.

Don’t use all the problems the team is having in a Five Whys session. Start small and specific to avoid an overwhelming set of problems. Finding fixes to too many problems quickly proves overwhelming and really difficult.

The 5 Whys is a powerful organizational technique. It can give your team agility, and it also provides the foundation a company needs to respond quickly to problems as they appear, without overinvesting or over-engineering.