Understanding What Causes Problems

When reviewing problems, how do you best understand their cause? This question is the point of identifying root causes and it’s a critical step to understanding how to resolve problems. Without knowing the root cause of a problem, it is unlikely that you’ll resolve the “correct” problem. Here’s my five step methodology on how to identify root causes of problems.

  1. State the problem. This is important so that you and your organization understand the scope of the project (or the problem, as the case may be).
  2. Collect data. One of the best ways to collect data is to conduct interviews with those that are directly experiencing the problem as well as those who may be indirectly impacted by the problem. Also, sometimes conducting focus groups helps bring to light hidden symptoms. For focus groups, ask only two questions: 1) What is working well? 2) What could be improved? Both questions will identify symptoms that you can use to uncover root causes. When conducting one-on-one interviews, use a standard questionnaire to zero in on root causes. Develop the questionnaire to suit the program being studied.
  3. Observe problems. Sometimes firsthand experience can be beneficial to understanding what is causing problems.
  4. Develop an Issues Template. Use the data collected through interviews, observations and other means (for example, you may also have created a flowchart of the process), and put your data in an issues template. The issues template should include the following headings: issue, resolutions, possible causes, and other relationships and impacts. Let’s work through an example of an organization experiencing overall records management inefficiencies. (this is the stated problem out of which many issues will be identified). For example, let’s look at the issue of inconsistent filing standards as one of the symptoms that stems from overall records management inefficiencies.
    • What is the issue? The issue is: inconsistent filing standards.
    • Next, review and evaluate your data and  think about possible causes for the issue. These could include that the organization has no records management procedures, staff is not trained in records management, the task is not written into any job descriptions, there is no records manager to enforce filing standards, etc.
    • Now think about other relationships and impacts that the issue may be having on the organization. This could include staff time and productivity loss due to searching through files in different offices, duplicated files within and between offices, more space used for both hardcopy and electronic files, and all of this has the impact of more cost and less productivity across the organization – you get the idea.
    • Finally, conduct a gap analysis based on your data and complete the resolutions column. Solutions to the issue may include writing procedures on how to file, training staff in records management practices, reviewing and ensuring job descriptions include the filing task, assigning a records manager to be responsible for records management, etc.

5.  Identify critical issues. Once you have your issues template completed, use it to pare down all of the issues to the few critical issues. When identifying critical issues, you are grouping the issues from the issues template into broader issue categories. The critical issues worksheet should contain the following headings: Critical issue; How is the issue manifested?, Why is it happening (causes)?, and Why is it important?/Implications if not dealt with?

Following from our example of records management inefficiencies and inconsistent filing standards, here is how one critical issue could be presented:

  • Critical issue – file integrity
  • How is the issue manifested? – different classification coding used by different departments, duplication of records across all media, electronic directory structures are not standard and out of control, no version control, etc.
  • Why is the issue happening? – organization does not have a standard records classification system, no policy, no procedures, no trained staff, no naming conventions for electronic files, etc.
  • Why is it important? – Incomplete files or incorrect documents may be used to make important decisions, fragmented and duplicated files will continue to perpetuate, increasing storage costs (onsite and offsite), increasing labour costs to maintain records, public accountability, legal risks, etc.

From here, other analyses can be performed to narrow down the resolutions for the problem, but with the issues template and critical issues analysis, you now have a good grasp about what is causing the problem. And once you know the cause, your next step is to work on what action to take to resolve the problem. But you can rest assured that with your critical issues identified, you’re now on the road to recovering efficiency and productivity for your organization.