Root Cause Analysis: A Quick Guide


Issues arise in almost every project. But knowing there’s an issue is one thing; figuring out its cause and how to solve the problem is another. If you’re missing deadlines and the quality of your product or service is suffering, then you might have a problem that you can solve through root cause analysis.

What Is Root Cause Analysis (RCA)?

As the name suggests, root cause analysis is a set of problem-solving techniques and tools that offers teams an opportunity to identify the root causes of problems they’re facing. But root cause analysis involves more than just identifying the root cause of a problem. It also helps teams identify contributing factors, prepare corrective actions, and improve business processes through continuous improvement.

What Is Root Cause Analysis Used For?

RCA is very versatile and can be employed by any organization for problem-solving. There are many different purposes for RCA such as six sigma, DMAIC, lean manufacturing, total quality management and software development, to name a few. This is because RCA is a set of methods and tools and not just one method, which gives teams the freedom to choose which RCA tools are best for them.

Project management software like ProjectManager helps teams keep all their project documents in one place, which greatly helps when performing root cause analysis. In addition, you can use project management tools such as Gantt charts, work breakdown structures, kanban boards and risk and resource management features to identify issues affecting your workflows, budget and schedule.

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When to Use Root Cause Analysis?

Root cause analysis is used when there are problems with a project, or any aspect of a business, especially those that negatively impact the client. This could range from a client complaining about some aspect of the project to teams being blocked and deliverables falling behind schedule.

Of course, problems in a project aren’t the result of a single cause. That’s why RCA is set up to capture a variety of root causes and contributing factors that are causing the problem you’re experiencing. Based on that information, you can create corrective actions to solve the problem. Now, let’s learn about the steps of the root cause analysis process.

Root Cause Analysis Methods, Tools & Techniques

As stated above, root cause analysis involves several methods, tools and techniques to help organizations better understand the root causes of issues affecting their workflows, business processes and project budgets.

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The 5 Whys of Root Cause Analysis

One of the best techniques when performing a root cause analysis is called the “Five Whys.” This approach is simply asking “why?” over and over again. This exercise is a deeper dive into the problem and its causes, rather than accepting the first answer, and brings you closer to what’s actually causing the problem.

The best way to understand this technique is through an example. Note that, while called the “Five Whys,” it can be only a few whys or dozens before you reach the root cause of your problem.

Let’s say you’re building a bridge, but deadlines are being missed.

Q: “Why is the deadline being missed?”
A: The team couldn’t finish their task in time.
Q: “Why couldn’t the team finish their task on time?”
A: Materials were delayed.
Q: “Why were materials delayed?”
A: There was no follow-through with suppliers.
Q: “Why was there no follow-through with suppliers?”
A: Teams weren’t adequately trained.
Q: “Why weren’t teams adequately trained?”
A: The hybrid methodology has gaps.

This question-and-answer exercise lead to the root cause of the missed deadlines problem. In this simple construction project management example, there are many issues, including lack of training, poor supplier relations and so on. The root cause is the methodology that hasn’t properly managed the project.

The Fishbone Diagram

Root cause analysis is about cause and effect. Identifying and documenting causes requires a diagram or document of some sort. The most commonly used one is the fishbone diagram also called the Ishikawa diagram and herringbone diagram.

A fishbone diagram is so-called because it looks like a fish skeleton. There’s a line down the middle from which spines sprout from the top and bottom, with each spine collecting the causes of the problem. They lead to where the fish head would be, which is the problem itself.

ProjectManager's free root cause analysis template
ProjectManager’s free root cause analysis template for Word.

ProjectManager offers dozens of free project management templates, including this root cause analysis template. Use the free template to spark brainstorming sessions with your team and figure out a solution that prevents your problems from coming up again.

Change Analysis

Another of the many techniques used in root cause analysis is called change analysis. Change analysis is used to identify and understand what might occur if a change is adopted, as well as what’s needed to accomplish that change, how to design it and identify the many risks involved, including impact on resources, effort and schedule.

Of course, this is a great way to get recommendations to successfully manage change, but it can also be used to find problem causes. For this technique to work, there must be a basis for comparison. It also involves a lot of resources and the results aren’t always conclusive. Therefore, a lot of testing is required to back up your findings.

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Causal Factor Analysis

This root cause analysis approach works on single events. As its name suggests, it consists of finding the root cause of a problem by establishing cause-and-effect relations over a timeframe, which is built based on qualitative and quantitative research, as well as empirical evidence. Once that timeframe is drafted, problem causes are tracked back to the start to find the root cause of the problem.

Barrier Analysis

Barrier analysis consists in finding the root cause of an issue through the analysis of the control methods that have failed to prevent it. This root cause model is a good alternative for organizations that have strong risk management procedures in place. For example, a large manufacturer might use barrier analysis to find out the root cause of a quality assurance issue in a production line.

Root Cause Analysis Steps

There’s no one-size-fits-all RCA approach, as it’s a very flexible set of tools, methods and techniques. However, here are the basic root cause analysis steps to help you get started.

1. Define the Problem

The first step in root cause analysis is to clearly define the problem or event that’ll be analyzed through RCA. Some examples of problems could be a machinery breakdown affecting production planning, a flaw in your customer service procedures or an issue with your supply chain. A clear problem statement is key for effective root cause analysis. Most of the time these problems will cause symptoms, which should be defined and tracked.

2. Collect Data

Once you’ve defined the problem, it’s time to gather qualitative and quantitative data to further explain how long it has existed, the impact it’s had on your business and any symptoms. Data collection is a very important step in root cause analysis, as good data is critical to find the root causes and contributing factors to your organization’s problems.

3. Identify Causal Factors

Now that you have the data you need, it’s time to start asking yourself about the events and conditions that lead to the problem. These are known as causal factors. They’re not the root cause of your problem but still contribute to it.

4. Sequence Causal Factors

Now it’s time to sequence the factors that are causing your problem by mapping them out chronologically. There are several charts and diagrams that can be used for this, such as fishbone diagrams or tree diagrams. These methods help better understand how the problem builds up by understanding the timeline in which causal factors occur.

5. Identify the Root Cause or Root Causes

Based on your findings from step four, you can now track the causal factors down to their root cause. That’ll lead you to find the root cause or root causes of your problem.

6. Create & Implement Solutions

Once you identify the root cause of your problem, it’s time to develop corrective actions to make sure the problem goes away. Don’t forget to create a plan for this, outlining which resources will be needed, who will be responsible for executing tasks and the risks of implementing said corrective actions.

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Why Is a Root Cause Analysis Important?

Issues are bad! They mess up your project schedule and cost money. A root cause analysis helps resolve them. That should be enough of an incentive to have you apply this method. Root cause analyses also help prevent the issue from coming up again. Once you know what the issue is and how to stop it, you can prevent it from happening again.

An Iterative Approach

Another reason to use root cause analysis is that it’s a tool for continuous improvement, which is how to keep up the quality of your product or service. No project is successful if its quality doesn’t meet stakeholder expectations.


Projects are known for their documentation. There’s research, feasibility studies and more. There’s even documentation when closing a project. But often the documentation of project issues and how they’ve been resolved is neglected. Root cause analysis is a way to document the process and apply it in future projects.

Process Improvement

Other things that the method can identify are deficiencies in the process that can be fixed, again adding future efficiencies, but also noting gaps in team training. Therefore, it can open opportunities to bring your team up to snuff and make them more valuable resources.

How to Perform a Root Cause Analysis

When performing a root cause analysis it’s important to not get tied up in the symptoms. Remember, this is an analysis to uncover the root causes. Those are the places you want to place your focus and correct any project missteps.

  1. Identify the problem: Without having a clearly defined problem, there’s no way to go back and look for causes in the process that caused it. This is the most important step: knowing the problem and defining its scope.
  2. Work backward: To uncover the potential causes for the problem you’ve identified, retrace steps. Again, there is likely more than one, and note as many as are relevant. Part of this process includes brainstorming with your team, using process mapping and a fishbone diagram to capture the various causes leading to your problem.
  3. Determine what the root cause is: There are other tools that can help, such as the five whys, a fault tree, cause and event tree and more.
  4. Come up with solutions: Again, brainstorming with the team is helpful. They’re the ones who are intimate with the project and its execution and will be your best resource to find a way to resolve the problem.
  5. Implement the solution: Remember, this isn’t a one-time thing, but must be sustainable and that the solution is in fact doing what it has been planned to do. This requires patience and follow-up, bringing anyone who is going to be impacted by the change.
  6. Monitor, track and report on the solution: Project management software can facilitate this step.

Principles of Root Cause Analysis

As noted, the general principle of root cause analysis is to find what’s creating a problem so that it can be corrected and change the processes that caused it. For this to work, however, the root cause analysis must be performed systematically.

Another principle of root cause analysis is that there can be only one. Yes, there might be dozens of causes that are collected on a fishbone diagram, but the root cause is singular. That might mean you’re going to have to invest a lot of time to find it, but it’s always there. It’s important to continue your investigation until you find the culprit.

For your investigation to work, you need to establish a timeline of events. This allows you to understand the relationship between the various causes and reach the root cause. By doing this, you’re not merely solving a problem, but changing a corporate culture from reactionary to proactive. This problem-solving style will reduce the problems you have to respond to over time.

How ProjectManager Helps With Analysis

Getting to the root cause of a problem creates greater efficiencies, which helps keep your project on track. ProjectManager is project management software that helps you find issues and gives you tools to solve problems and work more effectively.

Catching issues before they become problems is the best way to keep your project running smoothly. Because ProjectManager is an online tool, you’re getting live data that inform better decision-making. It also allows you to catch discrepancies faster, and act on them sooner, to avoid delaying the project or going over budget.

Get a high-level view of your progress and performance with our real-time dashboard. It’s already set up for you, unlike other apps, and automatically calculates project variance, workload, time, tasks and more, which are displayed in easy-to-read graphs and charts. It’s like having an instant status report without having to do anything.

ProjectManager’s dashboard view, which shows six key metrics on a project

Your stakeholders are invested in the project and want to stay updated on any changes that might impact their bottom line. Our reporting features make it easy to create a report with just one click and can be shared in a variety of ways to match how your stakeholders prefer their communication. Better still, each of our reports can be filtered to show just the data you want to share.

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ProjectManager is award-winning software that organizes tasks, teams and projects to create greater productivity. Real-time data means you can find issues faster and avoid them turning into problems. Use live dashboards and dynamic reporting to analyze and solve problems today by signing up for free today.