Approaches to Root Cause Analysis

Approaches to Root Cause Analysis

There is no single method for conducting a root cause analysis; rather, root cause analysis can be composed of different tools, processes, protocols and perspectives that support a systematic investigation of contributing and foundational causes of challenges; however, there are some common steps in the root cause analysis processes typically used across the public and private sectors. These common steps include:1

  1. Define a problem to be addressed and gather data and evidence relevant to the problem.
  2. Identify potential causes of the problem and determine the root cause(s) of the problem.
  3. Identify evidence-based strategies to address the problem.

There is no single way to conduct a root cause analysis; rather, there are many different approaches along with many various publicly available tools and resources. Depending on the context, root cause analysis may involve any one or a combination of these tools. For example, using the “is-is not exercise” to come to consensus on the scope of the problem and then using a “forcefield analysis” to determine the primary forces acting on your ability to impact the problem. Figure 1 shows 10 common approaches to root cause analysis, which vary in level of complexity and use within the continuous improvement process.

Figure 1. Common Approaches to Root Cause Analysis

Five Whys exercise, Fishbone or Ishakawa Diagram, Circle Map, Pareto Diagram, Causal Factor Charting, Forcefield Analysis, Diagnostic Tree, Questioning Data Schematic, Affinity Diagram, Is-Is Not Exercise


Three of the most accessible and straightforward approaches – the “five whys” exercise, fishbone diagram, and circle map – are all commonly used in educational settings as part of root cause analysis. For instance:

For examples of on the “five whys” exercise and “fishbone” diagram in action, please click on the link below for the fourth section of this resource (Root Cause Analysis in Action).

Regardless of the specific tools or approaches used, participants typically generate four different types of outputs during a root cause analysis:

  • Problem Statement: The definition of the central issue or problem being investigated.
  • Underlying Causes: Hypotheses of causes that may be the cause of the primary problem (also referred to as a potential cause).
  • Contributing Cause: An underlying cause that may contribute to the existence or persistence of the problem but is not central to eliminating or preventing the symptom from recurring.
  • Root Cause: The deepest underlying cause(s) that if resolved will eliminate or substantially reduce the symptom (positive or negative) or prevent the problem from reoccurring.

For examples of what these findings might look like in practice, please see the Massachusetts Sample Root Cause Analysis of School Challenges (link is external) and the three school profiles in the fourth section of this resource, Root Cause Analysis in Action.

Click here to go to the next section: The State and District Role in Root Cause Analysis.

1 See the resource from Six Sigma on the steps in the root cause analysis process at for more information. [Back].