Are you a leader struggling to achieve the results you’re accountable for and frustrated with traditional process improvement systems that are too complicated, take too long, and do not improve performance quickly?

In this article, I’m going to share with you a simple, 3 step process to quickly identify the key reasons WHY a performance outcome you’re responsible for is not meeting required target levels.

“Bonus Best Practices – at the end of this articles I share a link to download the number one process improvement tool for free – that will help you quickly and accurately identify why you are not meeting required target levels.”

Step 1 – Create Root Cause Team

As a leader, when you have a performance measure below target levels, the first step is creating a team, a root cause team who is responsible for objectively identifying with data, WHY performance is below target levels. You will want to select team members who are knowledgeable about the process whose performance is below target and should include a mixture of front line staff, supervisors, and managers.

At your first root cause team meeting, begin by reviewing the performance measure that is below target using a simple trend chart to visually see the results over time. Now I suggest displaying your results as bars and include a line signifying the required target level. Doing this will allow you to quickly identify trends and when performance is not meeting expected levels.

Next brainstorm possible reasons WHY performance is not meeting target levels – and here is the secret – brainstorm possible reasons around the 4 WsWHO, WHAT, WHERE and WHEN you are you NOT meeting target levels.

For example, let’s say a key performance measure your accountable for is overall customer satisfaction and the results are below target levels. With your root cause team, go around the room, and begin asking the following: First, brainstorm WHO is possibly not meeting target levels – are they male or female customers, what is their age, and are they a new or existing customer? And WHO was the individual team member who provided the service and how many years have they been on the job.

Next is to brainstorm WHAT is not meeting target levels. In our example of customer satisfaction, this normally includes identifying which survey question or questions that are below target levels. Next is to identify WHERE you are not meeting target levels. Common examples include the shift, department, or the geographic location where the service was performed. And finally, brainstorm WHEN you did not meet target levels, such as time of day, day of week, or the month.

Of course, these are just examples and will change based upon the specific measure that is below target – but the process is the same – brainstorm by the 4Ws, WHO, WHAT, WHERE and WHEN performance was below target.

Create Root Cause Check Sheet

With list of possible root causes by the 4Ws identified, next is to record them on a root cause check sheet using an excel spreadsheet. The purpose of the check sheet is to record the frequency each possible root cause contributed to an event not meeting target levels.

Below is an example of a completed check sheet using our customer satisfaction example. Across the top you will document the following: the unique event or incident number, date of the event, and then columns to record each of the possible root causes organized by the 4Ws.

For WHO – you will have a column for gender, age, new or prior customer, as well as a place to record the team member’s name who provided the service and their years on the job. Next is to document WHAT was below target – what specific survey questions did not meet required target levels – question 1, 2, 3, and 4. – WHERE did you not meet target – what shift, what department and what location. And finally, WHEN did you not meet target levels – time of day, day of week and the month.

Step 2 – Conduct Root Cause Study

With the list of possible root causes identified by the 4Ws, step 2 is where you will conduct a root cause study.

A root cause study is where your team will review every event when performance did not meet required target levels and can be accomplished as a retrospective study, looking at past events, prospective, looking at ongoing events, or more commonly, a combination of the two. As you review every event not meeting target levels, you will record your findings in the root cause check sheet.

For example, looking at a completed customer satisfaction survey that was below target, you discover the dissatisfied customer was a female, age 50, and was a new customer. The employee’s name was john smith and has been employed for one year. It was question 1 and 3 that were below target, it occurred on day shift, in the service department, north county, at 9am, on Tuesday in January.

You will repeat this process for every event where performance did not meet required target levels for the time period of your root cause study, and when complete, record the total number each individual root cause contributed at the bottom of your root cause check sheet.

Step 3 – Create Pareto Charts

Once you completed your root cause study and documented the frequency every root cause contributed to an event not meeting target levels, step 3 is where you will take the totals for each root cause and create four Pareto Charts – one for each of the 4Ws.

A Pareto chart is powerful tool used to visually display the individual root causes, or contributors as to why a performance measure is not meeting targets levels, sorted from highest to lowest. This will enable you and your team members to easily identify the “vital few” from the “trivial many” what are the major contributes as to why performance is below target levels.

A Pareto chart is created from an Excel document and includes both a left and right vertical axis. The left axis is the frequency of occurrences, or the number of times an individual root cause “contributed” to the problem, represented by a bar. The right axis is the percent each individual root cause contributed to the problem, represented by a line. Each individual root cause percentage is then added to the next, creating a cumulative percentage totaling 100 percent

So, in this Pareto chart example – if you total all the root causes, there are 132 events not meeting target level. And looking at our chart, RC 1 had 65 occurrences and it represented 49.2 percent of the total. If you total the frequency RC 1 and RC2 contributed to an event not meeting target levels, that represented 75.8 percent. And RC1, RC 2 and RC3, represents 84.1 percent of the total occurrences. Root causes that account for 80% or more are considered “key” root causes and are shaded in green bars. Root causes that contributed less than 80 percent, are shaded red, and are considered low contributors.

Create Four Pareto Charts

Back to our customer satisfaction example, you will want to create four a minimum of four Pareto charts – one for each of the 4Ws – a Pareto chart for who, what, where and when did you not meet required target levels.

You will simply type in the root cause title and total each contributed to an event into the table located below the graph, from highest to lowest the frequency each contributed to performance below target levels. As you type in the result, the Pareto chart will automatically update.

It’s common to create more than one Pareto chart within each of the 4Ws. For example, the WHERE root causes you may want to create a Pareto chart by shift to easily identify which shifts have the greatest frequency of low customer satisfaction, another one by department, and location where the event occurred.

Identifying the Key Root Causes

Once you created all your Pareto charts by the 4Ws, WHO, WHAT, WHERE and WHEN, next is to analyze the results to easily identify the key reason why performance is below required target levels.

To help you understand how to accomplish this let me give you an example. Remember playing the game CLUE as a kid? You won the game by correctly identifying – WHO was the murderer, with WHAT, and WHERE. Colonel Mustard, with a candlestick in the library.

That is exactly what you are going to do with the Pareto chart results that are visually displayed in green, from highest to lowest, the key reason why you are not meeting required target levels.

  • Who is not meeting target levels?
  • What is not meeting target levels?
  • Where are you not meeting target levels?
  • And when are you not meeting target levels?

With the identification of WHO, WHAT, WHERE and WHEN, you are not meeting required target levels, the next step for you and your team is to brainstorm and select solutions you believe will overcome each of the key root causes and quickly improve performance back above target levels. And to learn how to do this, I encourage you to read the next articles linked below where I walk you again though a simple, three step system.


To download the root cause check sheet and Pareto chart template – what I call the Rapid Process Improvement (RPI) Worksheet, click the Download RPI Worksheet button below.

Download Pareto Chart Template

The excel document includes seven tabs. First is the Rapid Process Improvement or (RPI) Team Worksheet. This is where you can document the names of who is on the root cause team and the key root causes by the 4Ws – Who, what, where.

The second tab is the root cause check sheet you will record your possible root causes and document the frequency each contributed to an event not meeting target levels during your root cause study.

You then have four individual Pareto chart tabs, one for each of the 4 Ws – Who is not meeting target levels, What is not meeting target, Where and When are you no meeting target levels.

And finally, a tab where you can document, rank, and prioritize solutions to overcome each of your key root causes.

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