Project management: How to conduct a root cause analysis

Follow this guide on how to identify the root cause of problems to successfully reduce risks and improve project outcomes.

Serious focused businesswoman typing on laptop holding papers preparing report

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At one stage or another, all projects are subject to risks and being able to isolate problems can be tricky. Knowing how to conduct a root cause analysis can help your teams get to the source of each problem faster and improve project performance over time. 

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What is root cause analysis?

Root cause analysis (RCA) is a problem-solving technique that is broadly used in business to identify where a problem, issue, or error originates. Instead of fixing the symptom, it gives companies a way to isolate the cause of a problem. Root cause analysis helps isolate what happened, when, where, and why a problem occurred. This information, in turn, helps your company decide how to fix the problem.

Why is root cause analysis necessary? 

Think of it in terms of removing weeds from a garden. If your goal is to remove weeds, then cutting off the part of the plant that you can see doesn't fix the underlying issue--the weed will come back repeatedly. To completely remove it for good, you need to remove it at the roots, literally. This is the same concept as performing a root cause analysis. 

What are the benefits of root cause analysis?

There are many benefits to being able to clearly identify the cause of the problem, including:

  • Developing a correct and sustainable solution to a problem. 

  • Improved internal process efficiency.

  • Increased confidence in the solution and team capabilities.

  • Improved team performance. 

  • Higher-quality deliverables.

  • Faster, more reliable turnaround time.

  • Improved client satisfaction.

How do you conduct a root cause analysis?

  1. Assign resources. Depending on the nature of the problem, it's vital that the right people and resources are assigned and allocated to analyze the situation and devise a solution. 

  2. Identify the problem. The first step is to identify the issue and the impact. What exactly happened, where, when, and who is involved or affected? Clear, thorough, and accurate documentation is important because  all information will need to be closely analyzed. 

  3. Analyze the problem to isolate the root cause. Using the information that was previously gathered, identify the cause of the problem. The goal is to pinpoint the exact cause. This means following the issue as far back as you can to the initial trigger. There are various well-recognized RCA tools like, Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA), a fishbone diagram, a Pareto chart, a scatter diagram, or other tools that can be used to isolate the cause of a problem. 

  4. Identify and implement the corrective action. Once the cause has been isolated, it is time to identify and implement the best corrective action plan, which includes steps, participants, timelines, test scenarios, and parameters to measure success. 

  5. Verify results. Immediately after implementation, measure the results to confirm that the root cause of the issue has been fixed. Document the findings for future reference, and include answers to these questions: 

  • Is the problem still persisting?

  • How effective was the solution (fully, partially, not at all)? 

  • Were alternative potential solutions or corrective actions considered?

  • Is there any potential impact to other areas, processes, or deliverables?

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