Root Cause Analysis: Using 5 Whys

‘Root Cause Analysis’ is a term that appears often in business but how do organisations use this as a tool to drive improvement?


What Does Root Cause Analysis Mean?

When things go wrong we want to fix them quickly, but sometimes we can focus too much on the symptom rather than the illness, leading to the same issue recurring.

Root cause analysis is the process of tracing a problem back to its beginnings, which can have surprising results.

For example, an office printer which regularly has a paper jam could have several root causes.

Rather than clearing the paper jam each, a Root Cause Analysis might look at the printers settings, the type/quality of paper used, how the paper was loaded in the tray and so on.

Eventually you will find the cause of the paper jam and this can be corrected to prevent future occurrences. For example, changing the paper stock or training staff how to load paper in to the tray.


How does Root Cause fit in to my ISO Management System?

In ISO management systems we can find problems and improvements arising from an audit nonconformance, incident, risk or feedback from interested parties.

In Annex SL based ISO Standards the corrective action clause (10.1) makes provision for dealing with nonconformances and explicitly calls out the need to investigate the cause of the nonconformance.

There are several ways to do this but below we discuss the 5 Whys approach.


Using the 5 Whys Technique

The 5 Whys Analysis approach can be found in the 6 Sigma Method, designed to help organisations improve their processes.

However the tool does stand alone as a simple method for Root Cause Analysis.

The principle is easy, starting with the immediate problem, ask:

“Why did that happen?”

And then with the answer to this question ask:

“Why did THAT happen?”

And continue until you can go any further. Your final response will be the root cause of the problem which can be fixed and tested to ensure it has solved the problem along the chain.

All this can be documented on your business improvement log or similar tool to ensure you have a record of previous defects.

While the tool is called “5 Whys” there is not limit to the number of times you can ask the question. The name derives from old business folklore which says that most problems can be traced back 5 steps.

While this is a good tool for basic issues, some organisations find that its linear-approach does not effectively capture their complex processes and therefore a broader approach is required.

However, for more ISO management system needs the 5 Whys tool is sufficient.

Need Help Identifying Root Causes?

Our ISO Consultants can help you conduct effective root cause analysis and manage non-conformances.  Contact Us for More information.

Robert Clements
Robert Clements
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