4 Root Cause Analysis Tools for Effective Problem Solving

Have you seen those people that can easily solve any problem that is thrown their way? It’s like problems don’t affect them the same way they affect you. 

We all face problems in our life. Problems at work and problems at home. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to easily solve those problems quickly and effectively?

Root Cause Analysis is the most important step of problem solving. In this article, you will learn multiple methods to get to the root cause. To eliminate the problem instead of only dealing with the symptoms. 

Table of Contents

What Is Root Cause Analysis?

Image of a plant and root. Demonstrating root cause analysis.

Root cause analysis is a systematic approach used to identify the root cause of an issue, taking into consideration all possible contributing factors. It is essentially a problem solving method that enables management and leaders to find the conditions that led to particular results.

The 5 Whys Root Cause Analysis Tool

You can use 5 Whys for troubleshooting, quality improvement, and problem solving. But it is most effective when used to resolve simple or moderately difficult problems.

It may not be suitable if you need to tackle a complex or critical problem. This is because 5 Whys can lead you to pursue a single track, or a limited number of tracks, of inquiry. When, in fact, there could be multiple causes. In cases like these, a wider-ranging method such as Cause and Effect Analysis or Failure Mode and Effects Analysis may be more effective.

This simple technique, however, can often direct you quickly to the root cause of a problem. So, whenever a system or process isn’t working properly, give it a try. Before you embark on a more in-depth approach – and certainly before you attempt to develop a solution.

How to Use the 5 Whys

1. Assemble a Team

You will need to gather people who are familiar with the details of the problem and the process you are using to solve it. This team can consist of people involved with the problem or outside advisors. The important part is to communicate the problem and what you are trying to accomplish if not already known.

2. Define the Problem

To learn more about the problem, analyze the situation. Multiple problems can be caused by a single situation. Each problem should be identified clearly to help pinpoint the root cause. Anticipate how the people affected by the problem will act.

Based on your initial observation, follow these steps to pinpoint the problem:

  • Understand the facts and opinions.
  • Identify where the problem is occurring.
  • Analyze company policies and procedures that may be contributing factors.
  • Talk to the team members concerned to get more information.
  • Describe the problem in detail
  • Collect all information necessary to resolve the problem.
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When defining a problem, it is important to stay focused on the problem and not try to find a solution. For example, the problem may be too many orders to fill before the deadline. Saying we must hire more people to fill the orders is focusing on a solution. 

3. Ask “Why?”

Question mark GIF for asking why.

Once you’ve defined the problem with your team, ask the first why. Why is this problem happening? This may seem like a simple question at first, but there is often more to it than initial thoughts. It’s extremely useful to determine root causes.

Avoid speculation and stick to the facts. This will keep you from going down a rabbit hole and veering off track chasing ghosts.

4. Dig Deeper With Four More Whys

Ask four more “Whys” for each answer you have generated in the previous step. Frame the question according to the answer that you have just got. For example if your first question was “Why was I late to work?” Your answer might be “Because I overslept” Your next question would be “Why did I oversleep?”

There can be multiple answers to any of the questions in the “why” process. For instance, when you answer “why did I oversleep”, the answer might be because you were tired and your alarm didn’t go off. This can take you down multiple paths to multiple root causes.

5. Know When to Stop

When asking “why?” produces no useful answers, you will know you have identified the root cause of your problem. The root cause of the problem should be identified and a counter-measure or process should be apparent.

Be careful not to get too far into the weeds with your questioning. When you go too far with asking why you actually begin to move further away from your problem. You get into matters that don’t truly relate to your problem.

6. Address the Root Cause(s)

Now that you’ve identified the root cause, you can begin addressing it. Discuss ways with your team on how you can prevent this problem now and prevent it from occurring again in the future. Once you address the root cause, you may have to revisit some symptoms of the problem to clean up the loose ends.

7. Monitor Your Measures

The final step is to monitor your results. You should be watching how well your countermeasures worked to eliminate or minimize the original problem. They may need to be modified or replaced entirely. If the problem does resurface or these countermeasures stop working, it’s helpful to start the 5 Whys process from the beginning. 

Simple 5 Why Example

Problem: I was late to work.

  • Why 1: Why was I late to work? I slept through the alarm.
  • Why 2: Why did I sleep through my alarm? I went to bed too late.
  • Why 3: Why did I go to bed so late? I was up late working on a project for work that is due to management today.
  • Why 4: Why was I working on the project at home? I didn’t have time to finish it at work.
  • Why 5: Why didn’t I have time to finish the project at work? I was busy helping a coworker meet their deadline on a project they needed help with. 
  • Possible solution: Next time this happens, have another coworker help the employee. That way I can focus on my tasks and not have to work late into the night to get them done.
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Change Analysis/Event Analysis

Image of the word change

This type of tool is used when a problem occurs shortly after a change occurs. First look at when the problem initially presented itself. Was there something that changed at that moment to cause the problem?

Continue to work your way backward recognizing changes as you go. List out all those changes. Don’t focus only on the moment the problem surfaced but continue to work your way backward. Just because you noticed a problem at a specific moment, doesn’t mean it wasn’t there before.

Simple Change Analysis/Event Analysis Examples

A production supervisor at a factory notices production has slumped over the past couple of months by 30 percent. The supervisor begins thinking back to what has changed in the past couple of months. The company got a new packaging machine, but that should be able to handle 20 percent more than the old machine. After talking to some employees, the supervisor realizes there is a significant learning curve with the new machinery causing the delay. The supervisor implements some new processes and has every one trained on the new machinery. This increases the production 20 percent over the levels before the new machinery.

Cause and Effect Fishbone Diagram (Ishikawa Diagram)

Image of Cause and Effect Fishbone Diagram (Ishikawa Diagram) example.

Another technique to visually map cause-and-effect is the creation of a Fishbone diagram (also known as an Ishikawa Diagram). This technique can be used to identify potential causes of a problem. It encourages us to follow categorical branches to possible causes until we find the right one. This is like the 5 Whys, but more visual.

We usually start with the problem at the center of the diagram (the fish skeleton’s spine), then brainstorm a few potential root cause factors. These are then put in off-shooting branches (the fish skeleton’s rib bones). The categories can be very broad and could include “People” or even “Environment.” Once we have grouped the categories, we then break them down into smaller pieces. We might, for example, consider root causes such as leadership, staffing or training under the heading “People”.

We can get closer to the real root cause of the problem by digging deeper into possible causes and sub-causes. This method can be used to eliminate unrelated categories, identify likely root causes, and determine correlated factors. Ensure you choose the right categories before beginning this effective root cause analysis method. This will help keep it simpler.

How to Use The Cause and Effect Fishbone Diagram

  1. Define your problem just like in the “5 Whys”. Put this in the mouth of your diagram.
  2. Choose the major categories. These will be the branches of your diagram. Categories should be general things like people, equipment, resources, etc.
  3. Once categories are selected, start brainstorming possible causes Put the under the correct category as a new branch.
  4. Similar to the “5 Whys”, you ask why each cause is happening to create sub-causes. These will be branched off the main cause. You do this until you get to the root of the causes. 
  5. Once root causes are determined, you should have some actionable solutions to your problem. Determine which solutions can and should be implemented or researched further.
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CAUSE MAPPING METHOD

Image of a cause mapping root cause analysis diagram

A cause map is similar to a Cause and Effect Fishbone Diagram. It is a form of a visual representation of problem analysis. Both can utilize the “5 Whys” approach to dig deeper into causes.

The differences are the cause map reads from left to right as opposed to the Fishbone Diagram reading from right to left. This is the case because of the Fishbone diagram being invented in Japan, and they read from right to left.

Also in the Fishbone Diagram, causes are broken down into categories. This is not the case for cause mapping. 

With cause mapping there also may be causes linked with an “and”. For example, I couldn’t pay my rent because my pay check was smaller than usual, and I had to pay hospital bills.

How to Use Cause Mapping

  1. Like all the other methods, the first step is to define your problem. This goes on the left.
  2. Next, ask why. This cause or causes go in a box to the right of the problem.
  3. Continue asking why to dig deeper for each cause until you have reached at least five levels of causes.
  4. This should give you at least one actionable approach to solving the original problem. 

Root Cause Analysis is Not Only for Problem Solving

Many times we focus on why a problem happened, but it’s just as important to understand why successes happen. Root cause analysis can and should be used on your big successes too. It’s the same type of steps. Start the success and work your way back determining what caused it. This can help you replicate successes in the future. 

Root Cause Analysis Software

There are many software programs out there that will help facilitate you through the process of problem solving. 

Sologic offers some great root cause analysis software. This includes “5 Whys” templates and a Fishbone Diagram tool. 

Tap Root is another site that offers patented software for cause analysis. Their software can either be utilized online or purchased and used onsite.

Think Reliability offers a free cause mapping root cause analysis template to make your process easier.

Final Thoughts

Now you have the tools to get to the root cause of any problem. The important part when faced with a problem is to try to get as much information as possible. The more information you have the easier it will be to solve the problem. 

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4 Root Cause Analysis Tools for Effective Problem Solving

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