Enterprise Software

Use root cause analysis to get to the bottom of an issue

One way to understand the root cause of a problem is to perform a simple root cause analysis. Root cause analysis just requires you to ask a series of "why" questions.

When an issue arises, it should be resolved as quickly as possible. This makes sense since our definition of an issue is a major problem that is impeding the progress of the project.

When you're resolving a problem, it's important to understand the difference between a cause and a symptom. A "symptom" is an indicator or a sign that a problem exists. For instance, if your team has low morale, it is a sign of a problem. Low morale doesn't happen by itself and can't be resolved by itself. The underlying problem may be heavy overtime, boredom, poor management, pending layoffs, etc. In other word, when you resolve an issue, you must address the cause of the problem, not a related symptom. This final cause can be referred to as the "root cause."

One way to understand the root cause of a problem is to perform a simple root cause analysis. Root cause analysis just requires you to ask a series of "why" questions.

The leaky pipe

Here's a simple example to illustrate our point.

Let's say a plant manager walks past the assembly line and notices a puddle of water on the floor. Knowing that the water is a safety hazard, he asks the supervisor to have someone get a mop and clean up the puddle. The plant manager is proud of himself for "fixing" a potential safety problem.

The supervisor, however, is suspicious. The puddle wasn't there yesterday. He wonders what caused the puddle to be there today. Therefore, he looks for a root cause by asking why. He discovers that the water puddle is caused by a leak in an overhead pipe. He asks why again, and discovers that the pipe is leaking because the water pressure is set too high. He asks why again and discovers that the water pressure valve is faulty. He asks why again, and doesn't get a further answer. The faulty valve is the root cause of the problem. So, the valve is replaced, which solves the symptom of water on the factory floor.

Root cause analysis is a way to identify the ultimate cause of a problem. In the example above, there were many opportunities for solving the wrong problem. First, the plant manager could have ordered more mops to be available on the factory floor. The supervisor likewise could have ordered that the overhead pipe be replaced. However, these solutions would have ultimately been wasteful and they would not have solved the problem since they only addressed symptoms - not the problem itself.

You perform root cause analysis then, by asking a series of "why" questions. Each time that you can answer the "why" question, you're probably identifying a symptom that is actually caused by something else. Continue to ask why for each answer until you can no longer generate a logical response. This lowest level is likely to be a root cause and is what generates the observed symptoms. You may discover more than one root cause through this analysis.

When you have identified the root cause(s), put an action plan in place to solve the problem. The symptoms should go away as well.

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