All too often, project managers waste valuable time by simply treating the symptoms of a problem, rather than finding the cure. This commonsense approach—to figure out the root of the problem rather than just handle related issues one at a time—ended up saving my colleague Chi Ling a lot of misery over a recent project.

The last time I saw Chi Ling, she was trying to resolve an issue that was plaguing her current project—adding an accounts receivable interface with another bank. The issue: It seemed that people from the bank were not available to help her team resolve a recurring data transmission problem. My first question was whether she had tried escalating the issue at the bank.

“I guess that’s the next step,” Chi replied. “But they have really been difficult to work with. This is the third time I have escalated problems because of their staff being unavailable. They must hate to hear from me by now.”

I could see that a pattern had developed, and I pointed this out to Chi.

“Whenever I see a pattern, it makes me think that a symptom, not the root cause, of the problem is being resolved. Why were the bank people unavailable?” I asked.

“They were allocated to other projects and were too busy to help us with our problems.”

“Okay, why were the bank people allocated to other work?”

“Well, I was told they have a huge workload,” Chi said. “Their people are all fully allocated, which means it’s hard for us to get help when we need it.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “We should be a part of that workload. Why aren’t they allocating resources to us?”

Chi thought for a minute. “I guess we haven’t been doing a very good job of telling them when we will need their people. If we made sure that their managers knew our timeline, perhaps they could ensure that the right people on their staff are available to help us when we need them.”

Mentor advice
Sometimes, in the heat of daily corporate battle, a project manager might resolve the symptoms of a problem without determining the root cause. In many cases, getting rid of the problem at hand is good enough. However, if you see another similar issue arise later, you need to take a better approach, and look for the root cause of the problem.

The way you get to the root cause is by asking a series of ”why” questions. By asking Chi a series of ”why” questions, we determined that bank support staff were unavailable because she had failed to give the bank managers a timeline, detailing when she would need their support. By understanding the root cause of an issue, a project manager can put the proper issue resolution in place the first time.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching project management and life cycle skills to the IS division. He’s also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.

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