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Find the Root Cause, Not Just the Symptom

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

"I just don't have enough time!"

When performance consultants interview employees to determine the factors that make it difficult for them to produce desired performance results, they often encounter the quote above. Lack of time is often cited as a root cause for performance gaps. It is good to identify this perception on the part of the employee, but it also should prompt the consultant to dig deeper. Lack of time is NOT a root cause; it is a symptom of something else.

Everyone gets the same amount of time—24 hours each day. No one can address a lack of time directly by simply providing more of it. I often tell colleagues that my performance would improve significantly if I just had an extra eighth day in each week. So far, nobody's found a way to make that happen. Instead of trying to address the symptom, we should try to get to the underlying root causes that create this perceived lack of time.

What might those causes be? In this case, perhaps the employee is unclear about their role and the associated responsibilities—taking on too many tasks that should be performed by others. The websites they use to complete their work may be down frequently, which causes transactions to take longer than they should. Or maybe, positions in their department have gone unfilled for months, leaving them to simply do the best they can.

Unlike a lack of time, the root causes in the examples above (role clarity, system issues, and staffing) can be addressed directly. It’s important to note that frequently a symptom may be indicative of multiple root causes, requiring multiple solutions to fully address them.

Root Causes Before Solutions

It is sometimes tempting to try to indirectly address a symptom by putting a solution in place before root causes are known. Consultants should resist this temptation!

Consider an analogy from healthcare (an area where symptoms are often discussed). Say I have a persistent cough; this is a symptom. I could self-treat the symptom temporarily with a throat lozenge and hope it goes away, but the cough could persist or even grow worse over time. If I really seek to improve my health, I must understand the root cause (or causes) that underlie the symptom. If my cough is caused by a respiratory infection, I'll need to consult a doctor, and the solution will likely involve antibiotics. But if my cough is due to mold in the crawlspace of my home, I'll need to consult a general contractor, and the solution will likely involve demolition and drywall. Think of the risk of implementing solutions when root causes are unknown.


Definitions of Symptoms and Causes

So, what are symptoms and causes, and what characteristics set them apart?


  • A symptom is a sign or indication of a root cause, but it is not, by itself, a cause.
  • Most often, symptoms lack specificity and are difficult to categorize.
  • It is very difficult to develop solutions to directly address a symptom.


  • A root cause is the real reason for a business or performance problem.
  • Root causes are specific and can be easily categorized.
  • Solutions can be implemented that either remove or mitigate the effects of a root cause.


Getting From Symptom to Root Cause

As noted above, when consultants encounter a symptom, it should serve as a prompt to dig deeper to get at the real root causes for an issue. There are a number of methods of root cause analysis, including failure mode analysis, fault tree analysis, and fishbone diagrams. For diagnosing performance issues, one of the simplest and most effective methods is the "5 Whys," which is often attributed to Taiichi Ohno and his Toyota Production System. This technique simply requires consultants to ask why repeatedly until root causes are uncovered.

For example:

Sales Rep: "I don't have enough time to make outbound sales calls."
Consultant: "Why don't you have enough time?"
Sales Rep: "I have to spend so much more time on paperwork now."
Consultant: "Why are you spending more time on paperwork?"
Sales Rep: "There are four positions in our administrative staff that have been vacant for several months."

In this example, by repeatedly asking why, the consultant was able to move from a symptom (lack of time) to a root cause (lack of appropriate staff). Filling those admin positions will address the root cause and the symptom, in turn, should go away.
Notice a couple of things about this example. It didn't take all five “whys” to get to an actionable root cause. Five is not a magic number; the fifth answer won't always be the root cause. Also, notice that a further analysis might be useful to get at the factors behind the turnover in the admin staff.

Remember, recognizing symptoms and digging deeper for root causes will help you select and implement solutions that produce results.

About the Author

Chris Adams is a performance consultant and instructional designer with more than 20 years of experience helping clients engage people, apply processes, and implement technology to improve human and organizational performance. He is currently a senior consultant for Handshaw Inc. in Charlotte, North Carolina. Chris was co-inventor of Handshaw’s award-winning software, Lumenix, one of the first content-managed platforms for e-learning. He has been a featured speaker for a number of ISPI and ATD chapters, and has presented at regional and international conferences such as Training Solutions, The Performance Improvement Conference, and the Coast Guard Human Performance Technology Conference. Chris holds degrees in mass communication and instructional systems technology and is currently a doctoral student in the instructional design and technology program at Old Dominion University. 

1 Comment
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A pioneer in the field of performance improvement once taught me that performance consulting is a design engineering field, aimed at optimizing performance systems, not just a problem-solving methodology for filling gaps. He pointed out that before the Quality movement, which focused on eliminating defects, performance improvement was not about addressing "root causes" like holes in the dike. It was, metaphorically, focused on "improving the dike." We build better dikes at
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