When trying to correct an issue within your department, how do you know you are fixing the problem and a symptom of the problem? This is the reason managers should do root cause analysis.

When trying to correct an issue within your department, how do you know you are fixing the problem and a symptom of the problem? This is the reason managers should do root cause analysis.


Root cause analysis is the process of trying to discover the source (or sources) of a specific problem. Using a simple example, say you see a puddle of water on your kitchen floor. How did it get there? Did someone spill it from their cup? Is the ceiling leaking? Is there a broken water pipe? You don’t have the time or inclination to figure it out, but knowing that water on the floor is dangerous, you wipe it up with a paper towel. 


When returning to your kitchen later in the day, you find that the puddle has returned and you decide to analyze what was causing it. After a few minutes of research, you find that the root cause of the puddle was a pipe under a nearby sink that is leaking. The good news is that your root cause analysis was successful. The bad news is that now you have to pay for a plumber.


The above example is obviously very simplified. That said, let’s move it to the workplace. Finding the root cause of business-related issues can be much more problematic and difficult to find. Even worse, the problem may show many symptoms and have more multiple root causes. For example, the problem may be that your customers are unhappy with the level of client service that your company is providing. As a manager, you must first understand why the quality of your service is declining and then find a way to correct it. The issue may be related to:


- Poor training of the client service representatives.


- Increased call-in volume.


- Quality problems with the products being serviced.


- Department processes related to customer follow-up.


- General morale of the customer service team.


- Or any one of a dozen other factors.


Fortunately, there are a number of tools that you can use to help you define the root cause of your problem, which of course is the first step in correcting it. These tools include the following:


- The 5 Whys.


- Cause Mapping.


- Ishikawa Diagrams, also known as Fishbone Diagrams.


- Brainstorming.


My goal in this week’s column is to provide you with a brief description of each tool. Then in each of the next four weeks describe one of these tools in depth.


The 5 Whys: As the name describes, you begin by asking a question such as, “Why is the quality of our customer service declining?” Then, based on whatever answer you receive, you replay with the question “Why?” and keep asking “Why?” until you drill down to the root of the problem.


Cause Mapping: This is a technique similar to The 5 Whys, but uses a flowchart-like diagram to document your findings. It also allows you to define and document multiple root causes by created branches in your diagram.


Ishikawa Diagrams: Ishikawa Diagrams were created by Kaoru Ishikawa in 1990. The reason they have the nickname “Fishbone Diagrams” is because shape of the diagram looks like the bones of a fish. 


Brainstorming: Brainstorming, popularized by Alex Osborn in 1953, is a technique known by most people. It can be used in many ways, including root cause analysis. At a high level, this technique brings together a group of people to jointly discuss the issue in a facilitated manor.


In closing, the descriptions of the above tools are just a taste of what they are and how they can be used. Tune in on the weeks to follow. I’ll be describing each of these great management tools in depth.


The primary advice and takeaways from today’s column is to know that:


- Root cause analysis is the process of trying to discover the source (or sources) of a specific problem.


- There are various management tools, such as 5 Whys, Cause Mapping, Ishikawa Diagramming and Brainstorming, that can help you discover a problem’s root cause.


Until next time, manage well, manage smart and continue to grow.


Eric P. Bloom is the president of Manager Mechanics LLC, a company specializing in Information Technology (IT) leadership development and the governing organization for the Information Technology Management and Leadership Professional (ITMLP) and Information Technology Management and Leadership Executive (ITMLE) certifications. Contact him at eric@ManagerMechanics.com, follow him on Twitter at @EricPBloom, or visit www.ManagerMechanics.com.