Take the Risk out of Innovation with the 5 Why’s

11th Nov 2021
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Innovation sometimes has a bad reputation among executives and board members who’ve been burned by unsuccessful innovation initiatives in the past.” - Viima

With 95% of all product innovations failing due to unresolvable problems, innovation comes with a massive element of risk and a truckload of unforeseen problems. It’s understandable, then, that 31% of businesses avoid innovative endeavours because they’re too risky.

But innovation is crucial if you want to survive in a saturated, globalised and over-competitive market, right?

What if there was a sure-fire way to find solutions to problems and remove the element of risk attached to your innovative projects?  

Say hello to the 5 why’s...

What is the 5 why’s?

A powerful tool for cutting quickly through the outward symptoms of a problem to reveal its underlying causes, so that you can deal with it once and for all.” – Impact Innovation

In a nutshell, the 5 whys is a simple ‘root cause analysis’ tool that exposes the real reason why a problem has occurred. Instead of just accepting the problem and letting it lead you down the road to failure, the 5 whys allows you to uncover the real reason why it happened. This understanding of the problems root cause will enable you to resolve it for good so you can keep your innovative project moving forwards.

Where did the 5 whys come from?

The 5 whys as a concept came from Sakichi Toyada: Japanese inventor, founder of the Toyota Motor Corporation and the ‘father of the Japanese industrial revolution’.

Whilst trying to advance the efficiency and effectiveness of the existing Toyota car production line back in the ‘50s, Sakichi Toyoda discovered many problems. As he began to try and understand each problem, he realised that if he asked “why” five times, the nature of a problem, as well as the solution to it, became clear.

Toyoda invented the Five Whys question asking method for discovering the root cause of events, particularly failure.” – Jeff McNeil

Toyota’s use of the 5 whys technique to solve their production line problems improved their manufacturing processes so much that it inspired other manufacturers to use it. Nowadays, the 5 whys is used across all industries, not just manufacturing, and is still used by Toyota to solve problems, identify solutions and prevent projects from failing. 

So, according to the 5 whys methodology, the way to solve a problem in one of our innovative projects is to ask why.

But why? And why should we ask why, 5 times?

How do the 5 whys work?

The five whys is rather like peeling back an onion that has many layers (well...five). The idea is that you progressively strip away the layers until you reach the centre, which is the root cause of the problem: The onion itself is your problem, and each layer that you strip back is a ‘’Why’’. Once all the layers have been taken away, you’re left with the white centre of the onion, which is the root cause of the problem.

The method is remarkably simple: when a problem occurs, you drill down to its root cause by asking "Why?" five times. Then, when a countermeasure becomes apparent, you follow it through.” – Mind Tools

It’s a useful concept that can be used to reflect on historical issues or resolve existing problems, regardless of industry or company size. It’s mainly used to work through simple to moderately complicated problems, because the really complex problems may need a little more in-depth analysis. However, the 5 whys is always a good starting point to help narrow your focus down with any problem.  

When a problem occurs, ask "why" five times to try to find the source of the problem, then put into place something to prevent the problem from recurring.” – Tuzzit

But why 5 whys?

The 5 in the 5 whys isn’t actually gospel. The methodology will still work regardless of whether you ask why ten times, or you ask it four times. The five came from an observation about the average number of iterations that are needed to solve a problem.

It’s understanding the principle behind why you need to ask why that’s key to this concept. We’ll get onto that in a minute, first, let’s look at how the 5 whys actually works.

The 5 steps to the 5 whys

There are five simple steps to the 5 whys method:

Step 1: Get a team together

The 5 whys is most effective if it’s done with people that know the issue inside out. For instance, if you have a problem with a new manufacturing process, your board members (who don’t work on the factory floor) won’t be able to give you anything but ambiguous answers to the 5 why’s. You need the answers to be based on fact, not fiction. So, pull together a team that has had hands-on experience with the problem or process.

Step 2: Define the problem

You might already know what the problem is, but it’s helpful to discuss it with the team, observe it in action if you can, and then write out a brief but clear description of the problem that you can all agree on. 

Step 3: Ask your 1st why

Once you’ve defined the problem, it’s time to ask your first why.

Why did this problem happen?

Although asking "why?" sounds simple enough, answering it needs serious thought. As we established in step 1, answers need to be grounded in fact and not guesses at what might have happened. If you allow theoretical answers to creep in, it’ll lead you down a rabbit hole of hypothetical problems. The team might come up with one solid answer, or they might be several plausible ones. Write all answers out in clear, concise statements.

Step 4: Ask why 4 more times

The first “why” will give you a surface level reason as to why the problem has occurred. To get to the root cause though, you need to dig deeper.

For each of the answers that you generated in Step 3, ask "why" a further four times in quick succession until you get to the root cause. You'll know when this is when the question “why?” gives you no more useful answers.

Step 5: Find and implement the solution

The final step is to take the root cause of the problem, come up with a solution to fix it and then implement it as quickly as possible.

In summary, the 5 whys concept works like this:

When faced with a problem, such as a test failure, don’t just accept that it happened, ask why it happened. And when you have an answer to what the immediate cause was, ask why again. Keep on asking why until you are getting no more useful information.”  - Innovation Canvas

We know what the 5 whys is, and we know how it works. All we need to know now is why it works…

Why do the 5 whys work?

The 5 whys is an effective tool for solving unforeseen problems and keeping projects on track because it gets to the root cause of problems quickly and easily. Drilling down to find the underlying reason for a problem means that you’ll be able to invest the right resource and find the right resolution to fix the problem for good.

If you don’t get to the root cause of an issue, the problem will only come back bigger and stronger, which is the reason why many projects fail. The 5 whys technique shows you the source of a problem, so you don’t waste time, money and resources on a solution that only solves the issue temporarily.

“‘Five whys’ can be used during or after a project. It can be used both to understand why a project may not be on track, or why a project has not delivered the intended outcomes.” – NHS England

But to truly understand the 5 whys, we need to see it in action.

The 5 whys in practice

Let’s imagine you own a business that supplies TVs to paying customers via mail order.

Recently, you’ve had an upsurge in customer complaints: It looks like the TVs are arriving covered in marks and scratches.

So, you gather a team together with people from sales, the shopfloor and dispatches. You explain to the team that customers are complaining because the TVs are arriving damaged.

Collectively, you come up with a problem statement:

“Customers are complaining that their new TV is arriving with scratches on the screen.”

1st why: Why are customers complaining that their TVs are arriving with scratches?

The team answers: Because the scratches happen in the box while they are being transported to the customer.


2nd why: Why do the scratches happen in the box while they are being transported to the customer?

The team answers: Because the remote control in the box is pressing against the screen.

3rd why: Why is the remote control pressing against the screen?

The team answers: Because the remote control isn’t fastened to anything, so it slides around during transport.


4th why: Why is the remote control not fastened to anything?

The team answers: Because the remote is dropped into the box after the TV has already been inserted.


5th why: Why is the remote dropped into the box after the TV has already been inserted?

The team answers: Because the new packaging means that there isn’t a dedicated space for the remote anymore.

And there you have it: A new style of packaging is the root cause behind why customers are complaining that their TVs are arriving full of scratches.

Now all you need to do is come up with a new packaging solution that has space for the remote control, and then implement it quickly. 


The 5 whys method is effective for solving problems that arise during your innovative projects. Being able to identify the source of the problem and then resolve it for good, takes an element of risk out of being innovative. Your project is less likely to fail if you can fix the problems rather than paper over them.

It’s a useful tool in finding reasons for manufacturing issues, customer service issues, and opportunities to innovate your offering in new ways.” – Mind Tools

This article was brought to you by Myriad Associates

Another way to reduce the risk associated with innovation is to take advantage of the government-funded R&D tax credit incentive. You can claim up to 33% of the costs associated with the design and development of your innovation. However, filing an R&D tax claim can be a daunting and complex process, especially if it isn’t your forte. So, if you want to secure the maximum amount of R&D tax relief, talk to Myriad Associates, R&D tax specialists that have been filing R&D tax claims for over a decade.

Contact them on 0207 118 6045 or drop them a message.