Root Cause Analysis: A Quick Guide

Issues arise in almost every project. But knowing there is an issue is one thing; figuring out how to resolve it is another. If you’re missing deadlines and the quality of your product or service is suffering, there’s a problem.

To fix the issue, you need to use techniques that gives your team a space to be open and honest so that you can discuss ways of solving the problem. One way to do this is by using a root cause analysis.

What Is Root Cause Analysis?

As the name suggests, a root cause analysis is a problem-solving technique that offers teams an opportunity to identify issues that are causing the problem.

Root cause analysis is used when there are problems with the project, 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 are not the result of a single cause. That’s why a root cause analysis is set up to capture a variety of causes that are causing the problem you’re experiencing.

Why Is a Root Cause Analysis Important?

Issues are bad! They mess up your project schedule and cost money, and 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 the expectations of the stakeholders.


Projects are known for their documentation. There’s research, feasibility studies and much 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 up 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 ills.

  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 resulted in 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 are likely more than one. 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, which we’ll get to in a moment, 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.

ProjectManager is a cloud-based tool that collects real-time data to give you more accurate information to make insightful decisions. Monitor progress and performance on a high level with live dashboards and then use one-click filterable reports to share with stakeholders to keep them informed.

real-time dashboard tracking progress and performance
Catch issues before they become problems with ProjectManager’s live dashboard.—Try It Free!

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 a deeper dive into the problem and its causes, rather than accepting the first answer, and brings you closer to what is 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 leads to the root cause of the missed deadlines problem. In this case, there are many issues, including lack of training, poor supplier relations and so on. The root cause is the methodology that has not properly managed the project.

The Fishbone Diagram

Root cause analysis is about cause and effect. To identify and document causes requires a diagram or document of some sort. The most commonly used one in 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 is 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.

a screenshot of ProjectManager's root cause analysis template
ProjectManager’s Root Cause Analysis Template

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 is needed to accomplish that change, how to design it and also any risks involved, including impact on resources, effort and schedule.

This is a great way to get recommendations to successfully add your change. It can also be used to find the causes of the problem. Of course, for this technique to work, there must be a basis for comparison. It also will involve a lot of resources and the results are not always conclusive. Therefore, a lot of testing is required to back up your findings.

Principles of Root Cause Analysis

As noted above, the general principle of root cause analysis is to find what is 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 Helps With Analysis

Getting to the root cause of a problem creates greater efficiencies, which helps keep your project on track. ProjectManager is a 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 a cloud-based tool, you’re getting live data that informs 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.

a screenshot of the live dashboard feature from ProjectManager

Your stakeholders are invested in the project and will 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.

filter options for status report from 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.

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