Finding The Root Cause

To solve your clients' problems, you need distinguish causes from symptoms.

Our job as consultants is to improve our clients' condition. And to do that, we need to be able to correctly diagnose an often poorly-defined problem, and use our specific knowledge, resources, and processes to create an effective solution.

Finding the cause of the problem is, by consequence, the key to our success.

This can be more difficult than it seems, though. We need to distinguish causes from symptoms, and understand the cause-and-effect relationship between the people, processes, events, results.

The idea of proximate and root causes is a great mental model you can use to explain what your clients will need to change to get the outcomes they seek.

Proximate And Root Causes

A proximate cause is an event that is immediately responsible for producing the observed result. A root cause, on the other hand, it's a higher-level event that we usually see as the "real" reason something happened.

Example: Why did I lose that client?

  • Proximate cause: The company was financially struggling and couldn't continue to hire external consultants anymore.
  • Root cause (?): I was not creating enough value for the client, or couldn't communicate the value that was being delivered.

Almost always, an apparent root cause may actually be a proximate cause in comparison to a deeper root cause. We can continue to explore it:

  • Proximate cause: I was not creating enough value for the client.
  • Proximate cause: As I continued to deliver implementation, I started acting like an order-taker employee who follow instructions. I did not explore how the client's situation was changing, neither suggested other growth and improvement opportunities they could pursue.
  • Proximate cause: When I started working with the client's staff to support implementation, I completely neglected strategic work. Having fewer and fewer exchanges with the CEO and directors, I lost sight of the big picture and it became more difficult for them to see the value I can bring.
  • Root cause: The lack of recurring conversations with the leadership team. These meetings could be agreed upon and scheduled at the start of my engagements, which is something I don't do with any client.

Note that, in this example, the final cause suggests a broken process or behavior that can be changed, which indicates we probably reach a root cause.

How To Find Root Causes

There are several techniques that we can use to explore and find root causes. The two most common ones are the "Five Whys" and fishbones diagrams.

The five whys was born and extensively used inside Toyota, which applied it to solve manufacturing problems. The technique is simple: You should keep repeating the questions "why?" for each cause. You can ask 6, 7, or even more whys, but five iterations are usually enough to get to a root cause.

One of the most important things to remember is that the last answer should point to a process that either does not exist or is not working well. Not enough time, not enough money, or not enough people are not root causes - the focus should be on what we can influence.

The issue with root cause analysis is that it can lead to oversimplification. Yes, you must simplify for your clients. But this doesn't mean neglecting important parts of the problem.

Not all problems have a single root cause. If you want to uncover multiple root causes, you need to repeat the method by asking a different sequence of questions each time. This will give you a starting list of root causes to investigate.

The five whys technique is not a perfect tool though, and has several flaws:

  • We're restricted to our current knowledge, which makes it difficult to find causes that we did not already know before.
  • Complicated problems might need more depth, and the five iterations can lead us to stop at symptoms instead of identifying root causes.
  • We tend to isolate a single root cause, whereas each question could elicit many different root causes.

To mitigate this you can combine the five whys with fishbone diagrams. It's a map that can host multiple root causes, identify if some of them appear multiple times in the same tree, and help your client to visualize the issues. Complex problems with multiple causes might make the diagram a bit cluttered, but it's a good tool to have at your disposal.

To improve your diagnosis, improve your root cause analysis.

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