Getting to the root cause of problems in project management

The 'why' comes first, and the 'how' comes later.
August 23, 2022
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It's best not to put a bandaid on a project problem immediately. Instead, call upon the project doctor to analyze and find the root causes of the problem.

Often, we find ourselves circling back to square one when dealing with project problems. With an annoying sense of déjà vu, these stubborn problems seem to keep cropping up even after being dealt with week after week. They leave you perplexed and wondering why they even occur. These unwelcome guests are definitely to be shown the door, but before they are kicked out, the mystery of 'why' they entered must be uncovered.

Almost all projects run into problems during their lifetime. How these problems are dealt with makes a world of difference in determining their successes. When we stumble upon a problem, our instinctive reaction is to find a quick fix to it; because what is visible is only the problem's manifested symptoms and causal factors. 

Although quick fixes and immediate remedies are time-efficient and gratifying in the short term, they do not address the initiating cause. By mending issues on a surface level, the silent creepers or the root causes of these problems tend to go unnoticed.

You’ve probably heard people go, "Let's get to the root of the problem," when looking for solutions after analyzing the cause of such problems. Understanding the root cause of problems will help you make sense of what's in front of you and solve them once and for all. In this piece, we explain all about a root cause analysis and provide you with strategies to improve your problem-solving process.


What is root cause analysis?

Root cause analysis (RCA) is a problem-solving process used in proactive project management. It looks beyond the superficial cause and effect and delves deep into the roots of the problem to discover what went wrong and what caused it. This systematic approach helps project managers find out why something happened and what can be done to ensure it doesn't happen again. RCA treats the underlying causes of the problem and is a more productive means to prevent, identify, and implement appropriate solutions to prevent rather than attend to fires ad hoc. 

Of course, problems in a project are never the result of a single cause, and that's why an RCA is set up to capture all possible causes/creaks. This practice will aid you in reducing the number of problems you will have to respond to over a period of time.

How does a root cause analysis work?

Every root cause analysis is about identifying:

  • The symptoms - what is visible or observable
  • The actual problem - of what is happening
  • The root cause(s) - of what is creating the problem

Once the root cause has been identified, multiple factors are analyzed to decipher how to fix, compensate, or learn from the issues. Lessons learned can also be applied as a best practice to prevent future mishaps.

The Core Principles of Root Cause Analysis

A few core principles can be leveraged to identify the root causes of an event or trend. These principles help improve the quality of the analysis while imbibing trust in the minds of stakeholders and clients. Getting to the root cause of issues even before they become huge problems is the best way to keep your projects on track and running smoothly. A few core principles applied during a practical root cause analysis include:

  1. Focus on remedying causes rather than just symptoms
  2. Realize there can be, and there might often be, multiple root causes, but invest in finding the main ones that might be hiding among the others
  3. Focus on 'how' and 'why' something happened, and less on 'who' was responsible
  4. Be systematic and methodical in weeding out deep-seated issues
  5. Find cause-and-effect evidence to support identified root causes
  6. Provide much context and information on the cause and take a comprehensive and holistic approach when approving a corrective action plan

Remember: you want to change from being reactionary to being proactive, and sound analysis is always actionable.

How does one perform a root cause analysis?

Imagine falling down from a bicycle and injuring your wrist. The broken wrist causes you a lot of pain, and the painkillers help you keep the pain at bay. They are not going to cure your wrist, nor is your wrist going to magically heal itself. A quick visit to the doctor will help you determine the actual underlying cause of the pain and help you heal properly.  In this example, the problem is a broken wrist, the visible symptom is the pain, and the root cause is a broken bone. 

Similarly, in project management parlance, a root cause analysis is a means to get to the underlying cause. It serves as a great starting point to ​​analyze your project's course and improve its efficiency. And the best way to get to the root cause of any problem is to:

Step #1: Define the problem

Ask what, where, and why. Begin with what is already visible to you and analyze what is happening. Identify the probable factors or symptoms that impact the problem. Precise problem statements will help you with the process in the coming stages.

Step #2: Collect data

Gather sufficient evidence to evaluate all aspects of a situation. This can be through performing a case study, incident investigation, or an accident analysis. Questions you should be asking during this step can revolve around contributing factors, the impact of the problem, and how often the problem is recurring, among many others.

Step #3: Identify possible root causes

Once you know more about how the issue impacts your organization and team members, it's time to nitpick potential causal factors. With requisite data, the cause(s) becomes easier to identify, eventually leading to an action plan and a solution. Common problem-solving strategies include the cause-and-effect flow chart or the five whys approach.

Step #4: Determine the root cause

To land on the exact root cause of your problem, you will have to sift through multiple possible causes. The analysis team can use strategies like the fishbone analysis, impact analysis, or the Pareto chart to narrow down causal factors. While it's common to land on multiple contributing causes to a problem, it's best to streamline your action plans.

Step #5: Implement solutions

It's tackling time. Once you're confident in the causes you have identified, it's time to find appropriate solutions and take action. The solutions you come up with must have a plan to ensure they work their way up the chain and address your initial problem. Develop an implementation plan and a timeline for implementation.

It may take teams several weeks to implement and several weeks to yield the fruit of your solutions. In the meantime, some of your project objectives may become dependent on these milestones. Project management software helps make your team's (work) life easier during such tiring times. 

Use Rocketlane for project management

Project management involves helping teams organize, track, and execute work within a project. A project management tool helps reduce the shuffling between spreadsheets, emails, chats, and other tools. 

Rocketlane replaces generic project management, communication, and document collaboration tools with a unique, unified workspace that is purpose-built for repeatable customer-facing projects. This is designed to ensure transparency, accountability, and consistency in all your projects.

With Rocketlane, teams can now:

  1. Coordinate effortlessly
  2. Collaborate in real-time
  3. Improve productivity, as plans, details, and communications are unified
  4. Share updates on the go with Rocketlane's advanced Slack integration
  5. Generate visibility for stakeholders

... and much more.


Further reading

  1. Nail your next project kickoff meeting in 10 simple steps. 
  2. Get the lowdown on retainer agreements, including their benefits, types, and how to write one.
  3. Check out 5 brilliant benefits of PSA software for your business.
  4. Want to send impeccable price quotes to potential customers? Explore 8 quick tips to get more customers to sign on that dotted line

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Shuvedha Subramaniam
Content Marketer @ Rocketlane

Marketing analyst @ Rocketlane. An Advocate by choice and a penwoman for the love of it. When the world zips, I like to zoink. Also, being happy by being kind.

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