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How root cause analysis helps remove project roadblocks 8 min read
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Good medical doctors try to find the root cause of any symptoms a patient might report, so they can treat the source of the issue rather than the signs. Simply treating the symptoms of any problem, whether a medical one or a business one, can mask what’s really wrong and push the problem down the road — or make it bigger. That’s why root cause analysis (RCA) is such an important part of project, process, and business management.

Identifying the root cause of a potential problem, such as why a team isn’t hitting productivity requirements or why a software design isn’t hitting home with customers, is the first step to finding a viable, long-term solution. This article delves deeper into what a root cause analysis is, when you should use one, and how can help.

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What is a root cause analysis?

A root cause analysis is a technique that helps you look beyond the signs and symptoms of a problem, so you can understand the contributing factors and figure out what, ultimately, is causing the issue.

Once you identify the real root of a problem, you can start working on solutions that stop the problem in its tracks.

Many project managers and other business leaders do realize the symptoms they can see and are dealing with are caused by problems they don’t know about. When that’s the case, discovering the actual source of the issue often requires using the right tools in brainstorming sessions with project teams.

“Root cause” is a part of our Project Management Glossary — check out the full list of terms and definitions!

Determining project issues and clearing roadblocks with root cause analysis

While you can choose from a variety of methods to conduct a root cause analysis, when you’re working to determine project issues so you can clear roadblocks and continue a journey to success, a few common steps are typically required:

  • Define the problem: Before you can find the root of a problem, you must ensure your entire team is working on the same issue by writing a problem statement. The statement should cover the impact and scale of the problem.
  • Go through a root cause analysis: Choose a format for your root cause analysis and go through the process with your team.
  • Keep asking questions until you get to the root cause: Don’t stop at the first causal factor you uncover. Often, there are layers of causes that at first look like the root of a problem.
  • Brainstorm potential solutions: Once you do find the root cause, your team must work to come up with actionable solutions to deal with it. Brainstorm solutions and rank them by factors such as potential impact, how fast they might work, and how hard and costly they would be to implement.
  • Choose a corrective action: Choose the solution that best meets the needs of the project and business, and work together to implement it.
  • Review and evaluate the outcome: Take time after the solution is in place to evaluate the outcome and ensure it’s working.

Following the steps above can help teams be successful with root cause analysis. However, before you can work through the process, you must choose a root cause analysis tool.

Root cause analysis in project management

Root causes can be found via a number of methods, including statistical analyses, as well as more subjective brainstorming. Here are some common root cause analysis tools you can use in project management:

  • The 5 Whys: This approach requires your team to ask why the problem occurred. Then they ask why about that cause, and they continue asking why until they get to a root cause.
  • Fishbone diagrams: A fishbone diagram is a visual tool to help teams discuss root causes within a structured format.
  • Pareto charts: When you’re ready to address the root causes you think are behind a problem, the Pareto chart comes in handy to help you identify the best place to start.

Root cause analyses can be helpful, but they do take some time. Knowing when to deploy these tools helps teams get the most out of them.

When you should conduct a root cause analysis

Some signs it might be time to turn to a root cause analysis tool include:

  • Everyone agrees there’s an issue, but no one can agree on what the cause is.
  • People think they know what the cause is, but they aren’t sure what the right solution might be.
  • While it’s clear there’s a problem somewhere, it’s not clear that the issue is with a specific process.
  • The performance of a process has changed significantly, and you want to know why.

One of the best ways to understand when your team should employ root cause analysis methods is to look at some examples of when they were a good tool to use.

Root cause analysis examples

Here are two examples of root cause analysis tools in action to help you understand when businesses or project teams might use this resource.

Discovering an error in a process

A factory makes parts that are supposed to conform to an exact shape and size. However, one in five outputs of the process has a side that has an incorrect measurement. Because those parts don’t fit the required specs, they’re waste, driving up costs for the factory.

A project team uses a fishbone diagram to determine what might be causing the defects. The team looks at the potential inputs into the process from machines, measurements, people, methods, and materials. Through the brainstorming session, it’s discovered that the raw metal used in the manufacturing process doesn’t all come from the same place. Around a fifth of the metal comes from a new supplier.

The team determines that the new metal isn’t holding up under the manufacturing process and is leading to defects.

Digging into customer dissatisfaction

A retail company reviews the latest customer satisfaction figures and finds that numbers have dropped significantly since the last quarter. No one is sure what the issue might be, so the team turns to statistical analysis to find a root cause.

A project manager pulls information from the customer satisfaction questionnaires and uses it to create a Pareto chart. The chart categorizes customer complaints into types and ranks them by how many complaints fell into each category.

Using the chart, the team can easily see which issues are the biggest for customers, and that lets them make changes that have the biggest impact on future satisfaction.

As you can see, root cause analysis is often a team task, and it typically requires gathering information and data. By working together via a system that makes communication and collaboration as seamless as possible, teams can discover root causes faster and implement solutions to mitigate challenges easier.

Get started makes root cause analysis easy

Our collaborative project management software makes it easy to gather your team for brainstorming and root cause analysis — even if they’re scattered across the globe. Create boards and work seamlessly from any location to review data, record your insights, and read feedback and thoughts from everyone on the team.

Start with something like the Root Cause Analysis Template to guide project teams through important causation thought processes. Once you find the root cause, turn to our Corrective Action Plan Template to support seamless movement from planning to doing as you work to implement solutions.

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Frequently asked questions

What is a root cause analysis?

A root cause analysis is a method that helps you find root causes for problems in processes, teams, projects, and businesses.

What are the 5 Whys of root cause analysis?

The 5 Whys is a brainstorming technique that helps teams find root causes. Teams work to get to the bottom of a problem by asking why questions until they reach the root cause.

How to perform a root cause analysis

You can perform a root cause analysis with brainstorming tools like the 5 Whys or fishbone diagrams. You can also use statistical analysis tools, including Pareto charts, to find root causes by analyzing data.

Get to the bottom of causation when you collaborate on

Can you discover root causes on your own? With the right tools, it’s possible. However, projects are often handled by teams for a reason, and getting to the bottom of issues is typically faster and easier when you bring people with different experiences and thoughts together.

Support that kind of winning collaboration on, where teams can automate processes, support transparency, and work together to get to the bottom of issues and solve them together.

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