How to use root cause analysis to fix problems

All aid projects face problems at one stage or another. It could be that an employee stole money from the project, or that an activity kept running for years even though it was ineffective.

It can be tempting to put these problems down to individual people. The employee was unethical, or the program manager didn’t do their job properly. But ultimately this doesn’t stop mistakes and problems from happening again.

To begin to really solve a problem you really need to know what the underlying cause of the problem is, not just its symptoms. Root cause analysis is one method to do this. This article explains how to do a very simple root cause analysis, and for a more detailed discussion and templates check out this root cause analysis article on MindTools.

Problem tree analysis — similar to root cause analysis — is used to identify the causes of problems that you’re trying to solve, and is often used during the design of a new international development / aid program. Root cause analysis is normally used to address specific problems or faults with your organisation or activities and programs that your organisation runs.

Identify the problem

The first step is to clearly identify the problem that you’re trying to solve. You need to answer the following questions:

  • What happened?
  • When did it happen?
  • Who was involved?

During these steps it is a good idea to meet with everyone involved. For example, if the problem is that a ineffective activity kept going for years you would need to meet with the staff running the activity, the participants, and you might also want to meet with the finance manager who approved the activity budget. Each of these people may have a different view on exactly what the problem is.

Ask why it happened, and keep asking why until you get to the root cause

Once you know what the problem is, the next step is to ask why it happened. It’s often useful to do this with a group of people in order to get different perspectives.

The first time you ask ‘why’ you will probably identify an immediate cause of the problem. But you shouldn’t stop there. Ask yourself why that immediate cause was a problem. That will lead you to a cause of the cause. Keep asking ‘why’ until you get to the root cause. Here is a typical example:

steps in root cause analysis

In this example the immediate cause of the problem was that the Program Manager and Country Director allowed the activity to keep running. If the analysis stopped here you might conclude that the problem was the individuals themselves. However, if you keep asking why it becomes apparent that the Program Manager and Country Director had no idea the activity was ineffective, and this was because no evaluation had been conducted. The evaluation had not been conducted because the organisation did not require all activities to be evaluated.

So even if you replaced the Program Manager and Country Director the problem could still happen again, because the new management team would still not be required to evaluate the activities.

Find a solution to the root cause

After identifying the root cause you need to find a solution to it. The root is usually something to do with the organisation. It could be a lack of standards or policies, or an issue to do with organisational culture.

This means that the solution is often also something to do with the organisation. In the example above the solution could be to implement a new policy that all activities must have an evaluation within two years of starting, and that the results of these evaluations must be shared and acted upon.

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About Piroska Bisits Bullen

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Piroska has worked on a range of international development programs involving local NGOs, international NGOs, UN agencies and government. She holds a Ph.D. in public health, has published articles in several journals, and was a speaker at TEDx Phnom Penh. Piroska is passionate about using scientific evidence and creativity to design programs that work.
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