Getting to the Root of a Problem

By Deborah Laurel


There are many reasons why solutions to problems are often ineffective, such as the fact that they:

1. address symptoms rather than the real problem.

2. are based on insufficient or inaccurate information.

3. are made for subjective rather than objective reasons.

4. are made for the sake of expediency.

5. fix only one part of a larger problem.

6. are based on the wrong root cause.

7. are unrealistic.

8. are the wrong solutions for the real problem.

9. do not consider all of the contributing factors.

10. are beyond the scope of those who have to implement them.

11. solve the wrong problem.

12. are based on assumptions.

However, there are three different cause-analysis techniques that can help to focus in on the true causes, or roots, of a problem: (1) is/is not matrix, (2) cause and effect diagram, and (3) top-down flow chart.

The is/is not matrix defines when and where the problem occurs, assuming it doesn’t occur all the time and everywhere. It is helpful when there is a sense that a problem is all-encompassing, when in fact it might be localized and easier to solve. The matrix questions help to organize existing knowledge and information about the problem. Using this technique first to identify the problem can help focus additional problem analysis.

The cause and effect diagram (often referred to as the fishbone because it looks like one) identifies and organizes possible causes of a problem. It is helpful when there is a sense that the problem is very general, which makes it difficult to determine how to approach its solution. It is most effective after the problem has been well defined, although the problem that is initially identified is frequently revised after the contributing branches start to be discussed. The diagram provides a pictorial display of a list and shows the relationships between factors. Of the three techniques, this is the one that is most familiar.

The top-down flow chart identifies the major sequential steps in a process in order to determine which step was overlooked, resulting in the problem. It is helpful when the problem appears to be the result of a process. Once the major steps necessary to accomplish a goal have been identified, the chart can then be analyzed to determine if there are steps that were overlooked and resulted in the problem under investigation.

Each technique can be used independently or in concert with another technique. All of the techniques can save decision-makers from selecting solutions that are based on assumptions.

Have you used these cause-analysis techniques? Any tips?


Deborah Spring Laurel is the President of Laurel and Associates, Ltd., a certified woman-owned small business that builds and strengthens managerial, employee development and technical skills through the design and delivery of participatory classroom training on a national and international basis. If you would like your participants to leave training with practical skills that they can use immediately, or you would like your trainers to facilitate quality programs that effectively achieve their learning goals, contact Deborah at or contact Deborah directly at (608) 255-2010 or [email protected]. To see over 650 training tips, go to her blog at