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Tools Used in Root Cause Analysis: The 5 Whys

  • Reading time:5 mins read

When a food quality or food safety issue occurs in your food business operation, the first go-to tool used in analyzing the situation is usually the 5 Whys. The 5 Whys is a classic and straightforward RCA technique that uses a repetitive questioning approach to uncover the underlying reason behind a problem. It involves asking “why” repeatedly, peeling back the layers of the issue to reveal its underlying factors. It’s a fantastic tool for situations where the cause-and-effect chain is relatively clear and doesn’t involve a multitude of complex factors.

Best Time to Use

This method is most effective when you’re dealing with well-defined problems that have a clear sequence of events leading up to the issue.

How to Use the 5 Whys

Define the Problem

Start by clearly stating the issue you’re trying to solve. Defining the problem accurately is paramount to uncovering its underlying causes. To ensure a thorough and focused investigation, it’s crucial to clearly articulate the problem statement at the outset. This entails describing the issue in specific terms and avoiding vague or broad statements. By pinpointing the precise manifestation of the problem, teams can navigate the analysis process with clarity and purpose. Also, framing the problem statement in measurable terms helps in setting clear boundaries for the investigation. Establishing metrics or criteria to define the problem’s scope aids in determining when the root cause has been adequately addressed. This approach prevents tangential exploration and ensures that efforts remain aligned with the primary objective of the analysis.

Ask “Why?” Five Times (or more)

After the problem has been defined, the next step in using the 5 Whys tool is to ask “why”. For each answer you generate, ask “Why?” again. it’s essential to ask “why” thoughtfully and systematically. Each “why” should be based on evidence and analysis rather than speculation or intuition. while the name suggests five iterations, it may take fewer or more whys depending on the problem’s complexity. The key is to keep drilling down until you reach a root cause that explains the origin of the issue and not just its symptoms.

Example in Action

Let’s say the problem is customers are reporting finding metal fragments in frozen dinners.

(Problem: Food safety issue leading to customers report).

Why? Customers are finding metal fragments because the finished product wasn’t screened for foreign objects before packaging (Cause 1).

Why wasn’t the product screened? The metal detector malfunctioned during production (Cause 2).

Why did the metal detector malfunction? It wasn’t calibrated according to the recommended schedule (Cause 3).

Why wasn’t it calibrated? The technician responsible for calibration was on leave and had no designated backup (Cause 4).

Why wasn’t there a backup plan? Company policy didn’t mandate designating backups for critical maintenance tasks (Root Cause).

Analyze and Verify

Once you have a potential root cause, don’t stop there. Analyze the answer critically. Does it logically explain the origin of the problem? Gather additional evidence or consult with experts to solidify your understanding of the root cause.

Take Corrective Action

With the root cause identified, develop and implement corrective actions to address the underlying issue and prevent the problem from recurring. In the example above, replacing the worn bearings and implementing a preventative maintenance schedule would be appropriate.

To get the best results from the 5 Whys technique, assemble a diverse team with different perspectives and areas of expertise. This diversity helps to uncover various angles and insights that might not be apparent to everyone. Encourage open discussion within the team to explore different viewpoints and ideas fully. This openness is essential for avoiding confirmation bias, where individuals may unconsciously seek out information that supports their preconceived notions. By fostering a collaborative and inclusive environment, you can leverage the collective intelligence of the team to uncover the root cause more effectively and develop robust solutions to address it.

Do you need assistance conducting a root cause analysis for food safety and food quality issues in your food business? Fresh Group’s food quality and safety expert team has both the knowledge and experience to conduct a root cause analysis and we are ready to partner with you to assist your business with resolving food quality and food safety issues so that you can focus on other key areas of running your food business.

Book a consultation with us to talk about how we can partner with your food business to conduct a robust root-cause analysis.