How to do a Root Cause Analysis Separating the source from the symptom

“What’s the core issue?” Consultants, coaches and business experts of all types love asking this question at the outset of “helping” conversations. Often, it’s met with a blank stare or the loss of eye contact altogether, as the client shifts uncomfortably in her chair.

What can you do if you’re asked this question, but don’t know the answer? Or you’re scared to articulate an answer that might offend someone or prove unpopular?

Try a root-cause analysis. It’s an iterative exercise originally developed by Toyota to examine the cause and effect of a specific issue.


  • Non-threatening: it can be done in the privacy of your cubicle or office or discussed in a group
  • Reveals underlying causes of a problem
  • Efficient: you’ll spend your resources addressing the source of the problem rather than the symptom
  • Uncovers biases and assumptions

How to do a root-cause analysis

There are several popular techniques. My favourite – and the one that works best when facilitating discussions in small groups – is to create a simple two-sided chart and structure a broad conversation.

  1. Draw a vertical line down the middle of a sheet of paper or a whiteboard. Label one side “cause” and the other “effect”
  2. Explain the difference between a cause and an effect: underlying causes can be solved, effects cannot.
  3. Ask everyone in the room to jot down a point of analysis regarding the problem you’re discussing.
  4. Ask each person to share their point with the group. Discuss whether it is a cause or an effect, reach an agreement and write the point down in the appropriate column.
  5. After everyone has had a chance to speak, review the “cause” column.
  6. For each cause, conduct a “5 Why’s” exercise:
    Ask “Why is this happening?”
    Write the answer underneath the cause or adjacent to it
    Ask “Why?” again, in reference to your first answer
    Write the answer down
    Repeat three more times, drilling down for the underlying cause.
  7. Rank the causes in order from most to least important to address

By the end of the discussion, you should have uncovered a pattern or theme that reveals the root cause of your issue. If this is part of a long-term planning project, you can test your theories by hosting similar discussions with others affected, especially clients and employees.

Sample analysis for a professional firm

What is happening? Three associates have left us to join a competitor firm that also serves some of our biggest clients. How will we replace them?

Why is this happening?
They expected to earn more money than the year before, while recording fewer billable hours , but we said “no”.

Half the files they worked on last year were billed as flat-fee arrangements instead of our regular hourly-fee arrangement. We asked associates to apply legal project management techniques to increase the efficiency of their work. They didn’t track the time spent on the flat-fee work as carefully as they do for hourly-based work because the billing narrative was simplified to reflect the fee.

The partner in charge of the relationship set some flat fees for one of our major clients based on his own calculations, then handed the work off to the associates.

The client threatened to move their business to another firm that already offered flat fee arrangements. We couldn’t afford to lose their business.

The client’s general counsel began updating his department’s protocols for hiring and evaluating outside counsel three years ago; he needed to prove the value of their legal budget to their shareholders and board after several years of rising costs.

The firm’s leadership is reactive. It couldn’t make the connection between market intelligence and it’s long-term strategy. The client’s needs changed years ago, but the firm didn’t take the changes seriously until it was asked to. And, when it did, no one analyzed how the change in fee structures would affect firm systems – finance, associate development or even its reputation platform.

It can be scary to face the reality of a root cause; firm culture, power dynamics and operating systems can be thorny, sensitive issues. That said, if you address the source, you’ll resolve other problems that were lurking in the background (knowledge management, budgets and market positioning come to mind for the sample case above).

The “Five Why’s” is one way to ensure you’re solving the right problem, and framing it in a way that could prevent it from occurring again. As Charles Kettering (holder of 140 U.S. patents) said, “A problem well stated is a problem half-solved”.

Learn more: Are you solving the right problem? By Dwayne Spradlin, Harvard Business Review, September 2012.