Finding the Root Cause: The Key to Solving Problems


Solving problems while preventing their recurrence can be a real challenge. Solving for immediate issues brings instant gratification, but the problems may pop up over and over again. Why does this happen? The reason often is that symptoms are misinterpreted as root causes, rather than red flags that underlying issues exist.

Of course, treating symptoms does not equal finding a cure. Taking medicine for a headache does not stop the cause of the headaches; it simply masks the pain for the short term. If the headache is caused by stress, and the stress continues, the headache will recur. Extrapolate that to any problem in the workplace and you can see why so many problem-solving efforts fail.

A quick fix is not a solution, but an immediate payoff is tempting. However, neglecting to determine the root cause will have consequences down the road.

A classic example of this is illustrated in the case of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C., which was crumbling from decay. In an effort to fix the problem, the on-site team determined that the cleaning chemicals being used were the cause. But when the chemicals were stopped, the problem persisted.

Although stories differ as to how the root cause was finally determined, the bottom line is that the chemicals were not the problem after all. The need for the chemicals was, in fact, a symptom of the problem.

Enter the “5-whys,” the problem-solving method often used when teaching this case study. It teaches the learner to ask “why?” in order to drill down from symptoms to root cause. Taiichi Ohno, father of the Toyota production system, which inspired Lean Manufacturing in the U.S., cited the method as the path to a clear solution. Here is how it proceeds:

Problem: The Jefferson Memorial is crumbling.

Why #1 – Why is the memorial crumbling?

Harsh chemicals are frequently used to clean the memorial.

Why #2 – Why are harsh chemicals needed?

They are needed to clean the bird droppings on the memorial.

Why #3 – Why are there so many bird droppings on the memorial?

Spiders around the memorial are a food source for local birds.

Why #4 – Why are there so many spiders around the memorial?

Swarms of gnats, which spiders eat, are drawn to the memorial at dusk.

Why #5 – Why are swarms of gnats drawn to the memorial at dusk?

The lighting on the memorial in the evening attracts gnats.

Solution: Change how the memorial is lit to avoid attracting gnats.

There you have it! The chemicals used were the result of bird droppings that would accumulate on the memorial. The birds came because of spiders, and the spiders came because of the gnats. What attracted the gnats to the Jefferson Memorial? The lights were on all night. Yes, the root cause of the problem was leaving the lights on!

After discovering this as the true root cause, the lights were set to a timer, going off earlier in the evening instead of staying on all night. This caused fewer gnats, which caused fewer spiders, which led to fewer birds, fewer bird droppings, and less of a need to clean the memorial.

Getting to the true root cause takes some persistence, but the results are worth it!

Authored by Geoff Wakefield