Data and Decision-Making: Using the 5 Whys Methodology


As I wrote in the first article in this series, our daily routine is full of decisions and each has an impact on our work and even life. Granted, whether to get the meat lovers or supreme pizza isn’t that serious. But if you’re looking at ways to reduce exposure of employees to hazardous conditions on a job site… decision-making can have a huge impact on revenue, running afoul of regulations, or even cause life or death situations.

At Envision Environmental, Inc., we use the PACED Decision-Making Model to examine choices in a logical, straightforward way for any decision related to EH&S. This model depends on having comprehensive data and information related to the matter at hand.

However, before we get to this stage, there is an important first step which is to truly define the real problem. Often, the issue at hand is not what it appears to be on the surface.

Only when you know the root cause of a problem can you collect the data you need to make sound decisions. When you don’t identify and understand the problem, you can’t really solve it because any action you take may be based on faulty information. Mistakes and serious consequences will arise naturally as a result… making the problem worse.

That’s why defining the problem first, before taking any action, is vital.

It brings to mind a quote from Albert Einstein: “If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.”

A Structure for Identifying Problems

The better you are able to identify the real problem in your processes, job site, EH&S program, or whatever else, the more effective your decision-making process will be.

The better you know your problem, the more effective your solution.

Problems can be complex or simple, major or minor. Problems can be a onetime event… or a recurring issue that, if not addressed correctly, can pop up again and again. Some can have a compounding effect, meaning that if left “untreated” they can result in deeper, more serious problems arising in the near or long term.

At Envision, our approach to identifying problems is pretty straightforward. Inspired by our clients that use the Six Sigma system of process improvement tools, we use the 5 Whys technique (sometimes referred to as 5Y).

It’s a type of root cause analysis first developed by Toyota in the 1930s that became quite popular in the 1970s, and it is still widely used today.

The 5 Whys process kind of reminds me of a little kid asking “tough” questions of a parent along the lines of, “Why can’t I eat dessert before dinner?” Parent: “Because it’s bad for you.” Kid: “Why is it bad?” Parent: “Because it has a lot of sugar.” Kid: “Why is sugar bad for you…?”

You get the idea.

We’ve underscored many times that my team and I emphasize a hands-on approach to our environmental consulting work. We believe in rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty. That’s an essential part of the 5 Whys process.

When asking “why,” we don’t rely on what someone at a desk thinks. We get on site, on the shop floor, and ask those involved in day-to-day operations up close to gain a real understanding of what’s happening.

You get the best answers to your “why” questions when you ask people actually experiencing the problem first-hand. That’s why we tap into maintenance folks, production line workers, etc. Management sometimes doesn’t realize the full picture, even if they think they do.

The 5 Whys in Action

When a problem occurs, we get to the underlying reason it’s occurring by asking “why” five times.

This gets you to the root cause… the true problem. Then, you can develop the solution to that problem and eliminate it.

Let’s look at this process with a typical EH&S problem that came up with one of our clients.

The surface problem: A facility received a notice of violation from state regulators for non-compliance with their wastewater permit.

  1. Why did they receive the notice?

    The monthly monitoring report was submitted late.
  1. Why was it submitted late?

    The company did not receive results from its monthly sampling until after the report was due.
  1. Why did they receive the results late?

    The person responsible for collecting samples did so at the beginning of the month and sent them to the lab in a timely manner as usual. However, this month, the lab mishandled the samples and didn’t analyze them properly.

    The company didn’t know until the lab’s report was submitted at the end of the month. That’s when they noticed the data was not valid. That meant they had to resample, and the samples were collected after the end of the month. That’s why the data was received late and the monitoring report was not sent to the regulator on time.
  1. Why didn’t the lab notify the company about the mishandled samples?

    It was an internal oversight. They assured the company it wouldn’t happen again.
  1. Why can the lab assure the company it won’t happen again?

    They have now instituted a quicker turnaround time for sample processing, from two weeks to five days at no additional cost to the company. They also added an email notification system to advise the company on the progress of the analysis.

    The first email advises when the sample is received. There is another email when analysis begins, and another when it is completed – with the report then sent within 24 hours.

    Also, if there are any issues, a notification will be sent right away. They will no longer wait until they send the report.

Using the 5 Whys allowed us to clearly identify the problem and its cause, allowing us to come up with a solution that would prevent it from happening again.

In this case, the company and lab had worked out a more efficient sampling and reporting process where the company was better informed at every step of the way, resulting in fewer errors.

In this particular instance, the lab also notified the regulator of their error. The notice of violation was not rescinded. However, it did not trigger an additional inspection by the regulator. A nice bonus.

This is a great example of chipping away at a problem to get to the root cause.

The 5 Whys methodology can be applied to any EH&S issue, whether a relatively simple problem like this or a more complex and serious problem.

To help you visualize the 5 Whys for any problem that comes up and to organize your questions and answers on paper, I’ve put together a simple chart you can download and fill out when you use this methodology:

The 5 Whys Process

I’m also happy to help walk you through this methodology with any EH&S issues or problems you’re dealing with at your facility.

Simply contact me, Mark Roman, at 609-208-1885 or via email at

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