Getting to the root of the problem #1

Article: Root cause Analysis - 6 April 2020

When problems occur in organisations, it is generally easiest to deal with the symptoms. Dealing with the immediately obvious aspects of a problem is also generally what gets recognition. Therefore, we tend to do exactly that. For instance, if something doesn’t work, we fix it, replace it, or re-do it. Job done. Problem solved. When something else goes wrong, once again we fix it, replace it, or re-do it. Job done. Problem solved. Or is it? The more astute reader will already be noticing a trend, and an opportunity to get a little smarter. Perhaps we might benefit from an investigation or Root Cause Analysis to get to the core of the problem.

Root cause analysis

Root cause analysis is based on the belief that problems are best solved by correcting or eliminating their root causes, instead of simply responding to the symptoms. In other words, by identifying and dealing with root causes, the recurrence of problems will be minimized. Of course, just one round of applying control measures will not always ensure the complete prevention of recurrence with. Root cause analysis may need to be a re-iterative process.

Two of the more well-known tools used in root cause analysis are the 5 Whys and Cause and Effect Analysis. In this article, we'll take a look at the former.

Root Cause Analysis and 5 Whys

The 5 Whys

The technique known as '5 Whys' is extremely simple yet can be very effective. It is repeatedly asking questions to gradually delve below the surface problem and uncover its root causes. Of course, the number of questions does not actually have to be 5 - that's just a generalisation. It might also take 3, 4, or 6 questions to get there.

Using the 5 Whys technique does not require any special resources - just persistence. As any parent knows, children are naturally gifted at it!

The following is an example that we have often used in our internal auditor training sessions:

An example of the 5 Whys in practice

The problem: An organisation that provides catering to functions is getting customer complaints that they are not receiving the food they ordered. Sometimes it’s the wrong food, sometimes the wrong quantity, sometimes too early or too late. Using the 5 Whys technique, we can drill down from the initial symptom to a root cause.

  1. Why are they not receiving the food that they asked for?
    Because the preparation team are working to a different list than the one that the customer authorised
  2. Why is the preparation team working to a different list than the one that the customer authorised?
    Because the customer authorises items on our order form, which should get entered in our order tracking software, but to save time, the sales person phones through the requirements – which are then written down by hand. Sometimes there are misunderstandings over what is meant
  3. Why does that save time – isn’t using the software quick enough?
    It is in theory, but while management and the preparation team have been trained on its use. The sales team haven’t been trained yet
  4. Why haven’t the sales team had software training yet?
    Because it’s in the budget for next year. Their training budget for this year has already been allocated – mostly on courses related to lead generation and sales techniques
  5. Considering that sending the wrong food is a source of customer complaints, why wasn’t the training prioritised?
    Because the Sales Manager chooses what to spend their training budget on, and didn’t know about the problem of incorrect food deliveries – that’s not considered a sales issue, but a delivery issue.


Drilling down from the initial symptoms is starting to reveal some potential causes, such as:

  • Inadequate training budget / inappropriate prioritisation.
  • A lack of information flow to management.
  • Incorrect categorisation of issues reported.

In other words, we are getting to the root causes of the problem. Of course, we could go further still. For example, we might ask: Why is there a lack of information flow back to management? However, this simple example clearly illustrates that the 5 Whys technique can be very useful in getting to the root causes of problems.

In our next blog, we'll take a look at Cause and Effect diagrams and other aspects of root cause analysis, including; utilising the knowledge gained and how software can enable the improvement process.


Author: Alan M. Jones
Qudos Management


There is a requirement for some form of Root Cause Analysis in most ISO management system standards including ISO 9001 and ISO 27001. Specifically, the reference is in the section of clause 10 'Improvement' that addresses nonconformity and corrective action.

Having read this, you may also be interested in another blog article - Getting to the root of the problem #2 - Cause and Effect.

Photo by bruce mars on Unsplash