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Root Cause Analysis: A Strategic Approach to Business Problem‑Solving

Optimize your business problem‑solving skills and implement solutions that work with a root cause analysis.

When running a business, problems will pop up. Some are easy to figure out, with clear root causes and solutions. Others? Not so much. As your business grows and more people join the mix, figuring out these problems can get more challenging.  

That’s why it’s important to look beyond the surface of the problem. You must understand why it’s happening before you can truly fix it. One effective way to do that is with a root cause analysis. This proven process lets you strategically dig deeper to find and resolve the main issues.   

So, how does root cause analysis work and why is it so essential for businesses? Read on to learn about how you can use this diagnostic method to identify each problem’s root and implement effective solutions.  

The basics of root cause analysis

A root cause analysis refers to the process of tracing a problem back to its origin. It helps you find the real reasons for issues affecting your business for more effective problem-solving.

When you know why a problem occurred, you can take steps to prevent it from happening again. This ensures you’re always working toward long-term solutions rather than temporary fixes.

For example, if sales drop every December, instead of offering more promotions, you might explore why. Perhaps it’s due to shipping delays, market demand changes, or competitors’ sales. By understanding the root cause, you can create better future strategies.

While root cause analysis might sound like a single method, it’s actually a mix of different tools and techniques, all aimed at figuring out why problems happen. Its origins lie in total quality management, but now, many businesses use it to solve and prevent issues, regardless of their management approach.

Effective root cause analysis methods

When it comes to diagnosing business challenges, several root cause analysis methods stand out. These methods offer systematic ways to get to the heart of the matter and find lasting solutions.

The 5 Whys

The 5 Whys is a straightforward method that involves repeatedly asking “Why?” until you reach the root of the issue. Each answer paves the way for the next question, peeling back the layers that may otherwise hide the real issue.

For example, you might ask:

  • Why did our email campaign yield low open rates? (Because the subject lines weren’t engaging.)
  • Why were the subject lines not engaging? (Because they weren’t personalized.)
  • Why weren’t they personalized? (Because we didn’t have enough customer data.)
  • Why didn’t we have enough customer data? (Because our data collection methods were outdated.)
  • Why were our data collection methods outdated? (Because we hadn’t updated our tools.)

In this example, the need for updated tools is the root cause. Once you resolve that issue, your data collection methods can improve, leading to personalized emails with much higher open rates.

Fishbone diagram

A fishbone diagram is a visual tool that aids teams in brainstorming the potential causes of a problem. It’s also known as the Ishikawa or cause and effect diagram.

The spine represents the problem you’re trying to solve, like decreased website traffic. Smaller ribs extend out from the spine to identify the underlying issues, such as marketing, competitors, or technical issues.

To narrow it down further, you might list specific causal factors that might be contributing to the main problem. For instance, under technical issues, you might list things like slow loading speed and website downtime.

Once it’s fully filled out, this diagram helps you see how each causal factor relates to the main issue. That way, you can identify the underlying causes, pinpoint the root one, and choose the best solutions.

Change and event analysis

A change and event analysis focuses on exploring the business shifts and events leading up to the problem. This method involves creating a detailed timeline to identify when and where things went awry. It’s beneficial for multifaceted problems potentially caused by a series of events or changes.

Here’s how it works.

Let’s say you want to discover why your content marketing campaign didn’t meet expectations. You’d create a timeline showing all the events leading up to its launch. This includes all decisions made, market shifts, ad placements, and other key factors. Then, you assess gaps and oversights in the marketing plan to determine why the campaign didn’t do well.  

Breaking down the root cause analysis process

Root cause analysis is a flexible tool kit, not a single method. For that reason, there are numerous ways to perform this analysis. The following steps provide a structured framework for how it might work within an organization. If needed, you can continuously adapt and customize these steps to work better for your business.

Step 1: Assemble your root cause analysis team

While you can perform a root cause analysis solo, it works much better when completed in a small group. Establish your initial team by selecting 2-3 people from the department experiencing the problem. Appoint a leader to keep things organized.

Also, bring in a department manager who is familiar with the underlying systems, knows the process details, and has the authority to enact the solutions. If your team lacks experience in the problem area, consider involving an internal customer or a quality improvement expert.

All team members will need to dedicate about 2 months to this process. You’ll likely need to meet at least once weekly for around 2 hours. During those meetings, your team will use the selected analysis method to identify root causes and solutions.

Step 2: Identify the issue you want to address

Before digging into the root cause, it’s vital to define the problem clearly. A clear and concise description guides your team through the process while keeping you on the right track.  

Start by creating a simple and detailed overview of the issue. Only focus on one problem at a time. If you’re dealing with multiple problems, break them down into individual pieces to tackle separately.  

Next, explain why this problem matters. Think about how the issue affects your business operations, marketing efforts, or any other aspects of your organization.

Once you’re finished, your problem description might look like this:

“Our customer support team is getting many complaints about incorrect information on our website. This has been happening for 3 months, and it’s making our customers unhappy. Some are even sharing negative comments on social media. We have to resolve this problem to regain our customers’ trust and restore brand loyalty.”

Step 3: Collect evidence that the problem exists

Next, it’s time to gather proof of the issue and thoroughly assess its negative impact on your company. This not only shows that the problem is worth solving but also gives you a starting point to check if your solution works.

Work with your team to record data, facts, and real-life examples detailing the problem. Depending on the issue, this might include customer complaints, error logs, product specifications, tech support records, or website content.  

Try to quantify the impact of the problem using key performance indicators (KPIs) or other metrics, like positive versus negative reviews. For example, in the inaccurate website content scenario above, relevant KPIs might be the customer satisfaction score, complaint volume, and website traffic and engagement.

Step 4: Brainstorm using analysis tools to find the root cause   

Once you’ve defined the problem and collected evidence, start brainstorming. When doing a root cause analysis, root problems often lie beneath multiple layers of symptoms. So, you’ll have to dig deep to find the main cause. To do that effectively, choose a strategy that aligns with your goals and works best for your team’s needs.

For example, you might use the fishbone diagram when you want to gather a wide range of perspectives. It’s also a good idea if your team prefers a structured approach to solving problems. The diagram helps visualize and categorize the possible causes neatly into different groups, effectively revealing all the contributing factors.   

On the other hand, the 5 Whys technique could work better if you’d like to pinpoint the core issue more quickly. If your team prefers a more focused and in-depth investigation, this method is likely the way to go. It’s especially useful if you suspect the problem has a simple root cause.

Ideally, you will end up with a singular root cause, but that’s not always the case. If there are multiple root causes to address, you may need to develop a multipronged solution. Or it’s possible that you might have needed to break the problem down further in the second step.

Step 5: Develop and implement an effective solution

With the real root cause identified, your team can work on finding and rolling out the proper fix. Gather your team for another brainstorming session to come up with various solutions. Encourage open and honest feedback from every team member. And write down all the suggested fixes without ruling anything out.

Review each solution to see how long it’ll take, how well it might work, and if it’s feasible. The best solution will be both realistic and impactful. After picking the most promising solution, create a clear plan of action. Detail the steps, assign roles, and set timelines to ensure a smooth rollout.

Next, share the plan with all major players, ensuring they understand how to proceed and what success looks like. Communication is pivotal at this stage, as it sets clear expectations and helps your team work together.   

Don’t forget to specify the expected timeline for seeing results. The duration can vary depending on what’s involved. Straightforward solutions might work within days, while more complex problems can take months to resolve.    

Step 6: Review the results to confirm the solution worked

After giving the solution time to work, check its effectiveness. First, measure the outcomes against the KPI benchmarks you set at the start. For instance, if you were measuring website traffic, go back into the analytics system to grab the most recent data and compare it to your starting numbers.

Second, gather feedback. Speak to each person on the root cause analysis team and anyone directly impacted by the changes. Review their input to get a ground-level view of how well the solution resolved the issue.

If the results don’t match your expectations, consider refining your approach or returning to the drawing board. However, if the solution is hitting the mark, document the journey so you have a roadmap to guide you if similar issues arise in the future. 

Optimize problem-solving with root cause analysis

In a nutshell, root cause analysis offers an effective way to tackle business challenges. This tool kit of approaches uncovers why problems happen, enabling you to fully resolve the issues and prevent them from reoccurring. So, whether you want to improve marketing performance, make customers happier, or improve your products, root cause analysis is the key to your success.

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