4 Root Cause Analysis Tools and Techniques (How to Use Them)

Last Updated on November 16, 2022 by Milton Campbell

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. The answer is probably root cause analysis tools.

We all face problems in our lives. 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 in problem-solving. In this article, you will learn many root cause analysis tools and techniques with examples. To eliminate the problem instead of only dealing with the symptoms. 

What Is Root Cause Analysis?

Image of a plant and root. Demonstrating how root cause analysis tools work.

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

Root Cause Analysis Tools and Techniques

The 5 Why’s Root Cause Analysis Tool

This is one of the more popular root cause analysis tools. You can use the 5 Why’s 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 the 5 Why’s can lead you to pursue a single track, or a limited number of tracks, of inquiry. When, in fact, there could be many 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 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. Many 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 first 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.

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. 

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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 your first 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 “Why’s” 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 many 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 many paths to many 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 countermeasure or process should be clear.

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. Discuss the Root Cause(s)

Now that you’ve identified the root cause, you can begin addressing it. Discuss ways with your team how you can prevent this problem now and prevent it from occurring again in the future. Once you discuss 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 Why’s 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.

Change Analysis/Event Analysis Tool

Image of the word change

Another one of the more useful root cause analysis tools is the Simple Change Analysis. 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 everyone trained on the new machinery. This increases the production by 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 find 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, find likely root causes, and determine correlated factors. Make sure 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 Why’s”. 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 them under the correct category as a new branch.
  4. Like the “5 Why’s”, 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. Decide which solutions can and should be implemented or researched further.


Image of a cause mapping root cause analysis diagram

A cause map is like a Cause and Effect Fishbone Diagram. It is a form of visual representation of problem analysis. Both can use the “5 Why’s” 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 the Fishbone diagram was 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 may also be causes linked with an “and”. For example, I couldn’t pay my rent because my paycheck 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. 

Free Root Cause Analysis Software

There are many software programs out there that will help ease you through the process of problem-solving. These free root cause analysis software programs can be extremely helpful in your problem-solving efforts.

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

Tap Root is another site that offers patented root cause analysis tools. Their root cause analysis 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.

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 with the success and work your way back. Determining what caused it. This can help you replicate successes in the future. 

Final Thoughts

Now you have the free root cause analysis tools to get to the root 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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