How to Put the 5 Whys of Lean Six Sigma on Steroids

One of the foundational elements of Lean Six Sigma is the iterative approach to business problems called the 5 Whys.  The goal of this tactic is to dive down into the core causes of business problems and ensure the right solutions were applied to achieve long term results.

Essentially the iteration called for 5 WHY Questions to be asked with the answer to each question providing the basis for the next WHY question.

For example, take the following sequence:

Problem:  Identify the problem or issue; Ask the question 5 times

  1. WHY did this problem occur? Because of REASON A.
  2. WHY did Reason A occur? Because of REASON B;
  3. WHY did REASON B occur? Because of REASON C;
  4. WHY did REASON C occur? Because of REASON D;
  5. WHY did REASON E occur?

On the surface, this approach appears simple.

But to execute this Lean Six Sigma exercise properly, there are several critical elements such as the need for a multi-disciplined facilitator, keeping participants focused on the pure logic of cause and effect with processes being the priority, withholding blame and personal responsibility as the root cause for any circumstance, and finally always answering the question WHY from the perspective of the customer.

Another challenge discovered as thousands of organizations implemented this Lean Six Sigma approach was that not all problems have one root cause.  When multiple groups were assembled to evaluate the root cause of the same problem, often different results were identified.

And in those instances when there were several core causes found, there was often confusion about how to set priorities and apply resources to solve the problem, how long the process would take and how to track the results?

Executive managers require a solution and methodology that essentially captures the essence of the 5 WHY approach in Lean Six Sigma and puts it on steroids.

What would the critical characteristics be for a solution to deliver an automated 5 Lean Six Sigma WHY process?

Ease of Use:

To be successful, a solution must be easy to understand and use. The IT department can’t have exclusive access to the tool and simply distribute monthly reports. Ease of use means putting into the hands of every manager down to the street level store manager a robust technology platform that allows the 5 WHY methodology to be applied to rapidly discover the root causes of poor sales, declining store margins, and profitability.


A buying customer who walks into a local store in today’s marketplace has immediate access to the internet – product research and opinions are available in an instant, with multiple avenues for purchasing any product.

This operating reality compels every management team in the retail supply chain to have their multiple silos of data accessible in seconds, not days, with the ability to present a coherent picture of all the critical activities happening within the store. This includes point of sale data, category performance, brand and package sales data, and the results of store promotions among others.

Being able to engage the right technology resources that will enable access, queries, and presentation of transaction level data is no small task. Many firms in the market can dress up the data in pretty pictures but lack the ability to rapidly drill down and find the root causes of store-level performance issues – which is the essence of the 5 WHY process


Finally, beyond the essential need for speed and ease of use, the right technology systems and tools must scalable. This means the systems, network, and processes must handle the ever growing silos of operating and sales data, be able to operate across broad geographies, and handle large numbers of users at the same time to ensure operational integrity.

A scalable system engages the intuitive skills at all levels of management down to the front-line store manager, who has the most intimate knowledge of his customers, competitors, and local market dynamics and enables their own intuitions to be applied and verified using factual data.

In the long term, a scalable system allows upper management to place real time accountability directly into the hands of that store manager who is writing the corporate checks, spending dollars, and using corporate resources.

The pace and speed of change in today’s market environment is confronting local managers with too many small but unique factors and considerations behind every decision. This leads to a sense of being overwhelmed, and when that occurs, managers tend to repeat past behavior instead of responding to current market realities. All of this leads to slow responses with uncertain outcomes.

With immediate and trackable feedback delivered by a scalable platform, managers are empowered to identify waste and move the levers that control profitability with confidence – knowing the outcome of those decisions can be tracked and measured.

This is the essence of continuous improvement and the foundation for long term profitability.

Karl Edmunds

About the Author

Vice President, Salient Management Company

is a nationally recognized business leader and author with more than 20 years of experience working with suppliers, distributors, and retailers in the CPG industry. His focus is aligning technical solutions with sales, marketing, and organizational needs to drive long-term profitable growth.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.