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Root Cause Analysis

Root Cause Analysis

The Power of “Why?”

As a small business, you may not have the resources that some of the large companies have to conduct deep root cause investigations. You may not have the luxury of being able to partner with one of the large audit firms to take on this task either. So where do you go?

Getting to the root cause of most issues can be accomplished by simply asking why – 5 TIMES!

It takes skill to get to the root cause of a serious issue like an internal theft. There are biases to try to overcome. For example, in most natural conversations, each person talks more than they listen. The risk is that they miss critical information that the other person is trying to convey. Also, when we consider a “who done it” scenario, we tend to focus on who we think did it, and dismiss those we find hard to believe could have done it.

So back to asking why.

Think back to when you had your last discussion with a child. They are in a learning mode and ask you why. It may frustrate you to continue answering the same question, but the reality is your first response simply did not suffice. So you answer again and again until eventually you are answering with a much fuller response. Check out this video as an example;


Real life application

I need to set the stage before explaining how effective asking why was in a real-life setting.

I had just returned from a Safety Conference and one of the speakers presented this risk management methodology of seeking the true root cause of accidents. What you see is not necessarily what you get, or in this case, the incident you observed was not the causation. So you ask “why?”.

I wanted to try out this methodology and when I went to visit a store in lower mainland B.C. I was given a chance.

The store had a higher than usual amount of employee injuries in the back room.

The first “why?”

When I asked why the accidents were so high I was given a statistical explanation. I was provided with the categories; slips, trips, falls and struck by objects.

The second “why?”

The next explanation was the how. “Department managers were hurting themselves”. I thought this was a bit odd because there was a program introduced across the chain limiting the amount of time a department manager needed to leave their home on the sales floor to go to the backroom.

So the third “why?”

The explanation and frustration became clearer at this point. Department managers needed to go back there to get merchandise because the program was not working in that store. The program was introduced where the sales floor staff would place an order for goods, and the backroom staff would retrieve and deliver the goods to the sales-floor. There was something not working with the new “system” and they had to take matters into their own hands, and so department managers had to work the back room.

“Why?” again

The backroom had been re-configured since the last times they were there on an everyday basis, and they just weren’t familiar with their surroundings.

“No. Why was the system not working?” (call this “why” 4.5)

New staff had not been trained and the program wasn’t working right, there was nobody to call.


Because the Market Trainer was promoted to management in a store in the Interior BC market, and there was no succession planning in place to replace him, therefore no training, therefore chaos in the backroom, therefore, accidents.

Just imagine if things were different and I could say “why are there more accidents in the store over the company average?” and somebody responds, “because we don’t have an adequate succession planning program in the region”.

So there you have it.

If you want the root cause, you gotta ask for it. Why? Because that’s the way we are wired and it takes a deliberate effort and good listening skills to get through the noise.

“Why?” gets to the bottom line, and that’s what matters after-all, isn’t it?

About Stephen O'Keefe

As an independent consultant I leverage my experience and knowledge to help a number of companies achieve results. Clients range from non-retailers looking for guidance to serve their retail customer, to retailers looking for quick solutions to unique and costly problems, right to the Industry Association. Bottom line Matters!

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