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Root Cause Problem Solving

The objective in root cause problem solving is to discover the points of leverage where patterns of behavior originate and can be changed.  The challenge lies in being able to distinguish between problem symptoms and problem causes.

Problem symptoms

What people traditionally call problems are frequently only symptoms of problems.  For example, the problem of decreased sales is really a symptom of whatever is causing sales to drop, which is the real problem.  Defining a problem in terms of its symptoms obscures the real cause and leads to symptomatic solutions that fail to correct the basic condition.

Problem causes

Problems are undesired results caused by structural relationships among system components.  When these relationships are complex and hidden, traditional problem solving is not effective and another technique is needed.  Root cause problem solving consists of discovering and correcting these structural relationships.  This process is called leverage and requires a systems approach to identify the system dynamics creating these outcomes.

Differentiating between problem symptoms and problem causes

Problem symptoms and problem causes can look very much alike.  For example the cause of a defective product could be identified as a final inspection problem, a process control problem, or a material procurement problem, yet all of these could be symptoms of a management problem.  The following process will help identify fundamental problem causes.

1.   Identify the undesirable condition that needs to be corrected or the events associated with this condition.

2.  Use the “multiple why” process to identify the causes underlying this undesirable condition.

  • This process is an adaptation of a Japanese quality technique.  It consists of continually asking “why is this occurring?” to each explanation and subsequent explanations until a common cause is identified.

3.  Continue this “multiple why” process until a fundamental or root cause is apparent.

  • Structural relationships are identified when the explanation changes from one system component to another.
    • Example, the explanation for homelessness moves from society (unemployment) to the individual (addiction) or when the explanation for a quality problem moves from manufacturing (defective product) to procurement (improper material).

A simplified root cause problem solving process

1.   Select the most significant problem symptom and ask, “Why is this occurring?”

  • Describe the symptoms using all the specific facts and data available.  This will enable a more focused examination of the conditions needing correction and a more precise definition of the problem.
    • Example, “Why are we unable to sustain operating profits higher than our cost of capital?” is more informative than “Why are our profits down?”
  • Record all of the explanations.

2.  Repeat this questioning for each explanation.

  • Record and compile all additional explanations.
  • Identify any emerging patterns.

3.  Continue this process until these explanations converge into some fundamental causes.

  • Avoid fixation on events or on blaming individuals.
  • Focus on systemic explanations.

4.  Define the problem or problems by describing the root causes creating them.

  • Accurate problem definition is critical for the development of meaningful solutions.
  • Identify the system structural relationships that are creating the conditions that need correcting.

5.  Determine the action or actions needed to change the system relationships creating the problem or problems.

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Copyright 2002 Three Sigma, Inc.