The 5 Whys of Risk Analysis
Posted on March 9, 2022 | in Operational Risk
What is the 5 Whys method of risk analysis? The best way to understand it might be by thinking about the famous (but true) trope of a child asking an adult “Why?” repeatedly, even after they’re given an answer.
“Tie your shoes.”
“Because otherwise you’ll trip.”
“Because when shoelaces are left untied and hanging around your sneakers, you might step on them and then trip.”
“Because humans aren’t that coordinated, and we’re bound to the laws of physics and gravity.”
“Because we can only do as much as our physical bodies will allow.”
“Because we haven’t yet reached the point in evolution where our consciousnesses don’t need to exist within a physical space.”
This kind of interaction can seem annoying, because the adult gives the child what they thought were matter-of-fact answers, but the child isn’t satisfied and keeps pressing. Think for a second about what annoys you more—the continuation of a conversation you thought was over, or the need to think more deeply to answer each “why” (and take more time), when you thought that the answer you gave was enough.
Sometimes it’s also annoying in safety management to challenge yourself to go deeper than surface level explanations for a workplace injury or accident, but that’s the only way to do the job correctly. When it comes to understanding, assessing and managing risks, you need to take the time to find the real “whys” that underpin the incident, or “root causes.” OSHA and other regulatory agencies have explained that true root causes tend to systemic (i.e., at the level of organizational programs and policies) and are factors that company management can control. Accurately identifying real root causes matters because we need to understand the reasons why an incident or accident occurred to be able to determine what you’re going to do about it, or even to understand that there is something you can do about it.
The Answers Lie Under The Five Whys
One of the post-incident root cause analysis processes, the 5 Whys are a simple and effective way to determine the true cause behind an incident, the root of the problems that arose. It follows a straightforward procedure most people can intuitively understand, as the above trope of the child’s questions shows, with the underlying principle that each question you ask goes a level “deeper” than the one before, so by the time you get to question #5, you are (or should be) asking the questions to uncover root causes.
That being said, “simple” does not mean “quick and easy”— like with other risk assessment methods, such as LOPA and HAZOP, you only get as much out of it as you put into it. And, you have to commit to keep asking the right question even when, and especially when, you’re getting to those deeper level questions that might turn up systemic failures in your organization’s safety management system.
In order for the 5 Whys to be valuable to your operations and help keep your people safer, it needs time and attention to detail. With every “why,” the answer gets both deeper and more specific. It’s not just about tying shoelaces so that we don’t fall, it’s about understanding that we have a risk of falling after a misstep because we’re affected by gravity.
Applying this to a workplace accident, imagine that an employee is walking down a path in a warehouse, and they don’t notice the small puddle of water in front of them from a leaking pipe directly above. They keep walking, they slip, they fall, they get hurt, then they’re off work for a week recovering.
Applying the 5 Whys Method
Let’s see how you might apply the information discussed above about the 5 Whys method to this hypothetical example. Here’s how your use of the 5 Whys might unfold:
(1) Why did the employee slip?
The pipe was leaking.
(2) Why was the pipe leaking?
The warehouse’s water pipes were not well-maintained.
(3) Why were the pipes left in poor condition?
Consistent evaluations were not completed to check the state of the pipes.
(4) Why were routine evaluations on warehouse conditions not completed?
Maintenance was busy with other tasks that seemed like higher priorities.
(5) Why wasn’t maintenance able to complete all these tasks?
The maintenance team is severely short-staffed.
Hello, Root Cause
Notice how, in the above example, each question we ask goes a level deeper, based on the answers we receive to earlier questions. And by the end, you’ve identified a systemic issue underlying the incident: the maintenance team is short-staffed. This is a root cause. The employee ultimately fell because the maintenance team is so short-staffed that they couldn’t complete routine maintenance to keep the warehouse in good, safe condition.
Think about it from a site manager’s perspective— realizing that the maintenance staff is so small that they can’t maintain a warehouse safely points out the possibility of other hazards that no one had noticed or been hurt by yet. By following the process, you’ve gone deep enough to identify root causes and now you can more accurately focus your attention and resources on addressing the problem and prevent recurrences of this issue or similar issues in other areas.
From childhood curiosity to workplace accidents, you can apply this analysis method to any situation and find a solid answer. As long as you’re willing to take each step and examine the true contributors to an accident, you can determine your true root cause and what you can do to rectify it.
Want to learn more about risk management and analysis?
Check out these resources:
- Expert Insights: What is Risk Management? Video
- Expert Insights: Key Points on Risk Management Video
- Bowtie Analysis Tools Webinar: How Successful Companies Manage Risk
- New VelocityEHS Virtual Training Course Explores How Bowtie Analysis Helps Manage Risk
Let VelocityEHS Help!
Our Operational Risk solution, part of the VelocityEHS Accelerate Platform, directly supports and simplifies use of the Five Whys method. You’ll also get the support you need to assess and manage risks using a variety of other methodologies, including hazard studies, process hazard analysis (PHAs), and risk bowties, and to verify that your risk controls are in place and working as intended. Visit our solution landing page to learn more or to request a demo.