Diagnosing Customer Service Problems with the Five Whys

By Roy Barnes, Bob Kelleher

The question “why?” is a good one to ask when you’re trying to diagnose the root cause of customer service problems in your organization — hence this discussion of the Five Whys technique. This technique, often used in the “analyze” phase of the Six Sigma methodology, is easy to use, doesn’t require deep research or lots of quantitative data gathering, and best of all, is kind of fun.

With this technique, you simply ask “Why?” over and over again — five times, or even more — until you unearth the root cause, or the real reason a customer problem has occurred. It’s a little like peeling an onion, with the answer to each successive “why” revealing yet another layer until you reach the root cause.

To use the Five Whys technique, follow these steps:

  1. Gather some smart people who know a bit about the problem together in a room.

  2. Write down the problem on a flip chart or whiteboard.

  3. Ask for agreement from the group that this is, in fact, the problem.

  4. Ask why the problem occurs.

    Write down all the answers you get from the group.

  5. For each of the answers that you write down, ask “why” again.

  6. After several rounds of this, ask the group whether they think that they have identified the root cause of the problem.

    If so, write it down.

For example, consider the following problem:

Customers are unhappy because your organization is taking too long to pay its warranty claims.

Now ask “why”:

  • Why does it take so long to pay warranty claims? Because customers often fill out the claim forms incorrectly. Claims supervisors can’t quickly process claim forms with errors, which delays the processing of all claim forms.

  • Why are the forms filled out incorrectly? Because they are confusing to customers.

  • Why are customers confused by the claim forms? Because the language used to describe products under warranty no longer matches the new product lines. The claim forms haven’t been updated since the offerings list was updated.

  • Why haven’t you updated the claim forms? Because the new product development team isn’t aware of the need to update the claim forms.

  • Why isn’t the new product development team aware of the need to update the claim forms? Because the person who was responsible for communicating with the claims team was laid off.

In this case, just five “whys” were needed to reveal that the problem was not that customers were making careless mistakes when filling out claim forms, but rather that the claim forms were populated with dated information.

The answer to the last “why” leads to the root cause of the problem. You must act to fix this root cause. Sure, you can also work to address any other causes or symptoms, but doing so in isolation and not addressing the root cause only leads to a temporary fix. Soon, problems will resurface. It’s critical that you keep pushing your team to find the root cause and to act on it.

You can ask “why” five times, ten times, twenty times, or more. It doesn’t matter how many times you ask, as long as you get to the root cause of the problem. That being said, asking “why” fewer than five times may not cut the mustard. Odds are, doing so will reveal symptoms, but not the root cause.

Asking “why” is a little like mining for gold. You must keep digging and digging until you find the source. Don’t give up too early; the problem quite often lies where you wouldn’t have expected it!