Techniques to get to the real Root Cause of a Problem

What’s really causing the problem?

You solved a problem at work – well done you! But, a few days or weeks later, the problem rears its ugly head again – how?

Turns out your time and efforts were misplaced, and what you thought was the problem was in fact merely a symptom or knock-on effect of the real underlying issue. In medical parlance, you applied a sticking plaster to a gaping wound!

Solving problems

When attempting to resolve an issue, the hardest part can be defining the real problem and the root cause. If you don’t deal with the problem at its source, then don’t be surprised when it keeps coming back to haunt you. Think of the gardener who pulls up a weed, but only gets 90% of the plant – most of the root is still in the ground. One week later, the weed has grown back!

So, we need a way to ‘drill-down’ into the problem to discover what’s really driving it. Here are a couple of useful techniques:

The 5 Whys

This technique was originally developed by the Toyota Motor Corporation during the evolution of its manufacturing processes. Its primary aim is to determine the root cause of a problem or defect by simply repeating the question ‘why?’ Each answer provided leads to the next ‘why?’ question.

There are 5 whys because it was observed that this was the average number of why questions that usually needed to be asked, in order to resolve the problem. You may need more than 5 to get to the root cause, or possibly fewer!

Here’s an example – my car won’t start:

  1. Why? The battery is dead.
  2. Why? The alternator isn’t working.
  3. Why? The alternator belt has broken.
  4. Why? The belt was well beyond its useful service life and hasn’t been replaced.
  5. Why? The car hasn’t been maintained according to the recommended service schedule (a root cause).

The Ishikawa diagram (or ‘fishbone’ analysis)

Developed by Kaoru Ishikawa, the fishbone diagram allows us to graphically depict the problem and the factors which may be causing it.

All you need is a flipchart, pens and your team (or anybody affected by the problem). On the right-hand side, draw a box and write in it what you think is the problem, e.g. low staff morale. Draw a horizontal line across the page (the backbone of the fish) and add diagonal lines (ribs).

Now ask the group – what do they think is causing this? Record their answers on the diagram along the ribs. Add more ribs if you’re getting lots of answers. If you’re not getting much from the group, prompt them for ideas using the default 4 M’s: manpower, machinery, materials or methods? Do they think the problem is linked to any of these areas?

Hopefully, you now have lots of potential causes recorded on the diagram. But which ones are causing the problem? Now you need to gather evidence, by monitoring the different areas over time, perhaps weeks or months – this is not an overnight solution! Eventually, you should have a good idea of the root cause(s) of the problem.


When trying to solve a problem, we must make sure we’re focusing our time and energy in the right place. If the same problem keeps happening again and again, then we probably haven’t identified the real problem yet. Instead, we’re just trying to fix the knock-on effects of the underlying root cause. The techniques described above enable us to ‘drill-down’ into the problem to understand its origins. Now we know what we’re looking at, we can sort it out!