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Leveraging 5 Whys Root Cause Analysis In Understanding Complex Data

Dong Li
Co-founder & VP of Marketing
Sep. 07, 2023

In today's data-driven world, businesses struggle with the dual challenges of complex datasets and the need for rapid, insightful analysis. But what if the solution isn't just about better tools but a shift in approach? 


One growing popular technique is the "5 Whys Root Cause Analysis" - a systematic questioning framework designed to peel back layers of problems to uncover their true root causes. 


This article will explore the strategic value of applying the 5 Whys methodology to modern data analytics, guiding readers through its key steps, benefits, and potential limitations. We'll also delve into emerging solutions like the Kyligence platform that address businesses' complexities in understanding and leveraging their data in impactful ways. 


By understanding the transformative potential of the 5 Whys in today's data-driven decision-making, you’ll learn how to derive actionable insights for your business success.


What Is 5 Whys Root Cause Analysis?


The 5 whys root cause analysis is a problem-solving technique developed by Sakichi Toyoda, the Toyota Industries founder. It is a simple but effective way to understand the root cause of a problem by asking "why" five times.


The historical concept is rooted in the Toyota Production System (TPS), a set of manufacturing principles developed in the early 1900s. The TPS emanated from the idea that a forward-thinking company must improve continuously. Beyond the surface, most problems have underlying causes. Therefore, by asking "why" five times, you can drill down to the underlying cause of the problem and identify the necessary corrective actions.


The 5 whys root cause analysis is a simple but powerful tool businesses that commit to continuous improvement can adapt to solve many problems.  


The Importance and Benefits of 5 Whys in Data Analytics


Faster problem-solving: By repeatedly asking "why" to peel back layers of symptoms, 5 Whys enables quicker diagnosis of issues in data analytics.

  • A direct approach to the root cause: The technique pushes analysts to address the true origin of problems, not just proximate signs or events.
  • Prevents symptom-based solutions: 5 Whys helps eliminate wasted time on temporary fixes that don't provide lasting solutions.
  • Fact-based, directed troubleshooting: The repetitive "why" questioning targets systemic issues you want to repair at their source.
  • Robust data analytics:  Fixing root causes leads to more robust data pipelines, models, and analysis.

5 Whys Root Cause Analysis Example In Data Analytics


When a business encounters an issue in data analytics, they often focus on the superficial cause rather than looking inward toward the underlying issues. Here is an example of a problem and solution following the 5 whys concept:


Problem statement: “Company X’s data analytics is slow.”


Many businesses could have stopped here without understanding “the why” and how to fix the problem. Let’s take it further by asking the 5 why root cause analysis questions.  


Questions: The 5 Whys

  • Why is the data analytics process slow?

Company X's systems struggle to handle petabyte-scale datasets, resulting in a lag in query responses.

  • Why is there a lag in query responses with large datasets?

The analytics tools aren't scalable enough to efficiently manage vast data.

  • Why aren't the current analytics tools scalable?

The existing solutions are not optimized for different deployment environments and lack flexibility in integrating modern BI tools.

  • Why do these analytics tools lack integration with modern BI tools?

Company X lacks a consistent semantic layer that defines, stores, and manages business metrics across platforms.

  • Why isn't there a consistent layer for managing business metrics?

The company hasn't implemented a unified data language across various business units, leading to inconsistent metrics definitions and storage.


Can you spot the difference? We now understand the root cause of why and gain deeper insights into the problem.


To summarize why Company X’s data analytics is slow after applying 5 why root cause analysis:


"Company X's data analytics process is slow due to systems that can't efficiently handle petabyte-scale datasets, outdated analytics tools that aren't scalable, lack of flexibility for different deployment environments, insufficient integration with modern BI tools, and the absence of a unified data language across various business units which results in inconsistent metrics definitions and storage."


Root Cause Analysis 5 Whys Template


The Five Whys technique can be invaluable for diving deep into data discrepancies, modeling errors, and process inefficiencies in data analytics. Here’s a template you can tailor specifically to data analytics challenges:


Identify the Business Issue:


What is the business performance issue you want to analyze?

(Example: "Revenue from the electronics category dropped 20% last quarter.")


First Why - Symptoms:

Why did this business performance issue occur?

(Example: "Sales for laptops declined sharply last quarter.")


Second Why - Initial Causes:

Why did laptop sales decline sharply?

(Example: "Our average laptop price is 10% higher than key competitors.")


Third Why - Root Causes:

Why is our laptop pricing higher than competitors?

(Example: "We haven't adjusted pricing in over a year despite falling component costs.")


Fourth Why - Deeper Analysis:

Why haven't laptop prices been evaluated in over a year?

(Example: "No pricing review process exists across electronics categories.")


Fifth Why - Preventive Action:

Why is there no pricing review process for electronics?

(Example: "The business lacks visibility into pricing trends versus customer demand and competitors.")


With Kyligence Zen, we can monitor pricing trends, competitor actions, and shifting customer demand to enable data-driven pricing reviews. This helps optimize revenues across electronics and other categories.


By systematically working through this template, data professionals can unravel the complexities often prevalent in analytics problems. It's worth noting that while we tailor this template for analytics, the Five Whys method is adaptable, and you can further customize questions based on the specific degrees of each data challenge.


How to Conduct Effective 5 Whys Root Cause Analysis in Business Analytics


Here are some tips to make your 5 whys root cause analytics effective:

  • Assemble a Data-Centric Team:

Form a cross-functional team comprising members familiar with the analytics process and the problem. Including data scientists, data engineers, and business analysts can offer diverse, valuable insights for pinpointing common issues in analytics projects.

  • Clearly Define the Analytics Problem:

Collaboratively discuss and establish a clear statement of the problem. Due to the multifaceted nature of data analytics, you must narrow the scope and ensure the issue is specific, measurable, and relevant.

  • Commence the Iterative "Why" Inquiry:

Appoint a strong data background facilitator to guide the questioning process so the team remains on track.


Delve into the problem by asking "Why" iteratively. In data analytics, answers should be rooted in factual data discrepancies, modeling errors, or process gaps rather than subjective opinions.


Note: While the method is named "5 Whys," the number of questions may vary


The aim is to uncover the root cause, whether it takes three or seven iterations. Also, anticipate multiple root causes, leading to a branching structure in your analysis.

  • Determine and Implement Data-Driven Solutions:

The team should collectively brainstorm data-informed corrective actions after identifying the root cause(s). These could range from cleaning data anomalies to tweaking analytical models. Assign responsibility for executing these solutions to ensure you implement them effectively.

  • Monitor and Validate the Outcome:

After implementing solutions, monitor the analytics process to assess the impact. This could involve tracking model accuracy, data quality metrics, or other relevant KPIs in the data analytics. If the issue persists, revisit the "5 Whys" process.

  • Document and Share Insights:

It's essential to record your entire process, the solutions applied, and the outcomes. Given the evolving nature of data analytics, this documentation will be a valuable resource for future analytics projects, fostering a culture of continuous learning and improvement.


Limitations And Misconceptions Of 5 Whys Root Cause Analysis


The "5 Whys" is a powerful tool for root cause analysis but comes with certain limitations and misconceptions. Here are some of them:

  1. Not Always Five Whys: One common misconception is that the method will always involve exactly five "whys." The number of "whys" can vary depending on the issue. It might take fewer or more than five questions to reach the root cause.

2. Surface-Level Analysis: If not thoroughly executed, the method can sometimes only identify superficial causes rather than the root cause.


3. Subjectivity and Bias: The 5 Whys can be influenced by the biases of the people involved. If team members have preconceived notions about the root cause, they might guide the questions in that direction.


4. Complex Issues: For multifaceted problems, especially those with multiple root causes, the linear questioning of the 5 Whys might not be sufficient. It could oversimplify complex issues.


5. Lack of Evidence: There's a risk of concluding based on assumptions rather than evidence. Relying on memory or guesswork can lead to inaccurate root cause identification.


6. Over-reliance: Using the 5 Whys as the sole method for all problems can lead to oversight. Some issues may require more advanced or different types of root cause analysis techniques.


7. Potential for Recurrence: If the analysis doesn't go deep enough, the implemented solutions might only address symptoms, not the actual root cause, leading to problem recurrence.


8. Skill and Experience Required: While the method seems straightforward, it requires skilled facilitation. An experienced facilitator can guide the team to stay on track, challenge assumptions, and dive deeper.


9. Doesn't Always Lead to Actionable Solutions: Identifying the root cause doesn't always equate to an actionable solution. While understanding the cause is crucial, further steps are often required to determine the best corrective action.


Despite these limitations, the 5 Whys can be an effective tool for root cause analysis if you use it appropriately. However, recognize its limitations and consider complementary methods or techniques when necessary.


Kyligence Zen And 5 Whys Root Cause Analysis


The 5 Whys is a simple yet effective problem-solving method. By repeatedly asking " why, " it uncovers the real issues behind surface problems, especially for data analytics. 5 Whys has been vital for revealing matters overlooked in today's complex data landscape.However, 5 Whys alone cannot fully address multifaceted modern data problems. This is where advanced analytics platforms like Kyligence Zen come in.


Kyligence Zen Complements 5 Whys

  • The platform is designed to enhance methods like 5 Whys. Its AI-driven analytics help you conduct Root Cause Analysis automatically through a Chat-based user experience.
  • It works for diverse businesses. Its scalable, flexible platform meets data needs whether you're a startup or an enterprise. The user-friendly interface also makes it accessible to everyone.

Here are some examples of business use cases and templates in Kyligence Zen that can facilitate 5 Whys root cause analysis:


Retail Sales Performance

  • Use Case: Analyzing declining sales for a product category
  • Template: Sales Metrics template provides metrics like revenue, units sold, ASP, and YoY comparisons to identify sales drops.

E-commerce Conversion

  • Use Case: Diagnosing low online conversion rates
  • Template: Web Analytics template has metrics on traffic, bounce rates, and conversions to uncover bottlenecks.

Customer Churn

  • Use Case: Reducing customer attrition
  • Template: Customer Metrics template includes churn rate, NPS, and retention metrics to pinpoint root causes.

Social Media Engagement

  • Use Case: Improving social media reach and engagement
  • Template: Social Media Metrics template provides follower growth, post impressions, and engagement rates to optimize strategy

With the Metrics Template in Kyligence Zen, users can use predefined metrics across these templates immediately. Combining these metrics with the 5 Whys questioning approach allows you to rapidly perform root cause analysis on these key business use cases. The AI-powered natural language search makes it easy for anyone to gather these insights.


With the AI Copilot that is built into Kyligence Zen, you can simply ask your 5 whys and get the root cause analysis automatically and quickly! For example, we can ask, "Why did sales in the East region drop sharply from Oct. 3rd to 4th, 2018?". It quickly gave a thorough analysis, showing the main reasons for the sales drop and the biggest positive and negative influences.


Ready to boost data-driven decisions? Register now to try Kyligence Zen for free.