Skip to main content

Projects Keep Running into Trouble? Treat Root Causes Instead of Symptoms

Suppose you went to a doctor with a knee injury and the doctor did an exam and said, “It looks like you hurt your knee. Here are two Advil for the pain.”

That’s not what you were expecting – you were hoping to learn WHY your knee hurts. Being given Advil for the pain is just treating symptoms and not dealing with any underlying problems. So, why settle for just treating symptoms within your business? If you continually have projects that are running over budget or are delayed, you can certainly get more money approved to deal with the project “symptoms” or urge everyone to work harder, but clearly, it would be better to know exactly why projects keep running late or over budget. Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is the tool you need for a case like this.

Related Article: Why Projects Fail: A Root Cause

So how do you begin getting to the root causes for your project delays or overruns? The stakeholders around you will freely share opinions, but we are all human and tend to focus on our latest experience or insight, not on the full picture. So start with real data. This means getting a detailed list of all past projects over a period of time – at least a few years’ worth. The details should include budgeted and actual start and end dates and dollars, who the key project sponsors were, who the main project team members were, what business processes were impacted, what systems were impacted, how the scope changed from inception to completion, and what other major business events impacted the project.

The trick here is not to get lost in collecting this information, but to go as quickly as possible through getting the basic answers to these questions into a spreadsheet format.

Now the analysis begins. This starts with simple visual inspection such as highlighting those projects that went significantly over in time or dollars and those that completed on time and on budget. What are the key similarities and differences between these two groups? Even this basic analysis will start to tell an interesting story. Were the problematic projects mostly in one or two systems or business process areas? Did they have the same sponsors? The same project managers? This analysis can also be extended significantly using statistical tools that can uncover trends and outliers and provide key insights.

With a good understanding of the “facts” about project performance history, you and your team can move on to identifying root causes. RCA is a problem-solving method that identifies the underlying factors creating the problem symptoms. Many methods are available to do RCA, including fishbone diagrams, Five Why’s, and even simple brainstorming. Statistical analysis can also be useful for drilling down to specific root causes. The Six Sigma and Lean methodologies offer excellent tools and process guidance for RCA.

Bellwoar 112816 1

Once root causes are understood, it’s time to prioritize them. Which ones are causing the most problems or the largest problems? These are the ones to tackle first for the biggest impact. Assemble the appropriate team for each and get to work brainstorming potential solutions, testing them and putting them in place. Remember to communicate throughout the process to impacted stakeholders, especially during and after implementation. This should be a learning opportunity for the whole organization, and good communications are a key to making changes stick. Solutions can range from the small and simple, such as training specific people in better estimation skills, to the more complex, such as revising your portfolio management process to require more formalized reviews. If possible, go for the “low-hanging fruit,” those solutions that can be implemented quickly so that your efforts can gain traction and commitment to making more investment. A final key is to make sure to continue collecting data and measuring performance. Have your changes made a difference? Have new problems emerged? Is it time to move to the next set of root causes? Staying on top of the data will let you know.

About the Authors

Kathy Bellwoar is the President and Founder of PPT Consulting and has over twenty-five years of experience within industry and as a partner of a major global consulting firm prior to founding PPT Consulting. She has managed numerous strategic technology projects from software selection to implementation, and from establishing IT strategy to optimizing business processes. Her key to project success has always been to ensure the key components of People, Process & Technology are addressed in the delivery of all solutions.

Elizabeth Martens is Director, Client Services with PPT Consulting and has over 20 years of experience as a senior technology leader. She has extensive experience in managing technology investments and resources to align with business strategy and drive results. She has worked with clients to implement project and program management capabilities, build communications plans, launch and monitor major software implementations and develop more effective ties within and across organizations.

Comments (4)