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Root-cause problem solvingRoot cause analysis

Root-cause problem solving is fundamental to improvement planning. The concept is about drilling down to the root of a problem rather than just skimming over the surface and accepting the most obvious causes.

In effect there are no ultimate root causes as the root constantly shifts as you delve deeper and deeper. Instead the root cause that you really need to find depends on the “problem owner”. There may be several root causes uncovered, the final choice as to which one to fix depends on the cost benefits of various solutions. However, below are four well-used techniques that help drill-down into the heart of a problem.

1.    A well-defined problem
2.    Root cause problem solving ­ six steps
3.    The Five “Whys”
4.    The So-what technique

A well-defined problem

Problems need to be well defined; otherwise much time, effort and money can be wasted trying to solve the wrong problem. A good problem definition …

•    Focuses on the gap between what is occurring and what should be occurring.
•    States the effect that is generated by the gap
•    Highlights the significance of the effects to all stakeholders to the problem
•    Provides measurements that give a clear fix on the situation
•    Describes the pain cause by the problem
•    Avoids “lack of” and “no” statements as these imply a solution prematurely, before the problem has been considered thoroughly.

Example: This month there were 27 product rejects from customers. This problem has resulted in three known consequences.

  1. A 15% rise in customer complaints,
  2. An additional 20% of customer service time taken handling the complaints by the production manager
  3. The loss of one long-term customer to a competitor.

Root cause problem solving ­ six steps

The real issue is often not what the root cause is but how can the problem be solved most economically and effectively to prevent recurrence. One way is to follow these six steps:

1.    What is the unwanted effect? Expressed as two word or phrases, for example: Rejects ­ too many.

2.    What is the direct physical cause?

3.    Follow the direct physical line of the cause to establish the sequence. The “Five Whys” technique or the “So-What” technique can help here (see below) Example: Delivery was late. Why was it late? The van didn’t start. Why didn’t it start? There has been no routine service lately. Why has there been no routine service lately? No one has been responsible for booking the service in.

4.    Ask at each stage: Who owns the problem?

5.    Identify where should you intervene in the sequence to create a long-term solution.

6.    Identify the most cost-effective solution.

The Five Whys

The 5 Whys is a simple problem-solving technique that simply requires that the user asks “Why?” several times over. The Toyota Production System made this technique popular back in the 1970s and in their experience you need to ask “Why?” five times to get to the root cause of a problem.

Simply put, the 5 Whys technique involves asking the question "Why?" and or "What caused this problem?" every time you are confronted with a situation or problem such as the outcome to some process event.

Typically, answering the first "why" will provoke another "why" and the answer to the second "why" will stimulate another “why” and so on.

How to use the tool:

When confronted with a problem, look at the end result and work backwards (toward the root cause), continually asking: "Why?" Repeat this process over and over until the root cause of the problem becomes apparent to you.

 The 5 Whys technique is a simple technique that can help you quickly get to the root of a problem. But that is all it is, and the more complex things get, the more likely it is to lead you down a false trail. If it doesn't quickly give you an answer that's obviously right, then you may need more sophisticated technique problem solving techniques.


Why is our customer dissatisfied? - Because we did not deliver our services when we said we would. 

Why were we unable to meet the required deadline? - The job took much longer than we thought it would.

Why did the job take so much longer than we expected? - Because we underestimated the complexity of the job. 

Why did we underestimate the complexity of the job? - Because we made a quick estimate of the time needed to complete it, and did not list the individual stages needed to complete the project.

Why didn't we do this? - Because we were running behind on other projects. We clearly need to review our time estimation and specification procedures.

The 5 Whys technique is an easy and often-effective tool for uncovering the root of a problem. Because it is so elementary in nature, it can be adapted quickly and applied to almost any problem.

The “So-What?” Technique

“So-What?” is a handy technique for extracting more information from a simple fact.

How to use the technique:

You start with a given fact such as a Planning Issue or some data, then ask the question “So what?” In other words you are asking: ­ What are the implications to the business of this fact? Or, what does this fact actually mean to the business? To continue the technique simply keep on asking the “So What” question every time you reach a new answer, until you think you have drawn out all the possible inferences.

 The “so what” technique provides a framework used in a participative environment within which you can extract information quickly, effectively and reliably. In fact it is perhaps at its most most useful when used as a structure to get into a constructive dialogue with other team members.

This technique can also be useful in identifying a core competence in business management or a unique selling point in marketing (USP). Start with a feature of the product and keep saying so what? 


We provide team planning techniques for business clients. ­ So what?

This helps a client get everyone involved in the decision-making process. ­ So what?

This improves the motivation of the staff and makes the planning more robust. ­ So what?

These improvements feed through directly into increases in performance for the client. ­ So what?

Increases in performance means that they can reduce their prices somewhat and improve delivery times. - So what?

The reduced prices and faster delivery times mean that their product becomes more attractive than the competition. ­ So what?

They end up selling more product and make bigger profits! 


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