Stage 4: Find root causes

Perhaps the most critical and most difficult step in the OPQ process is to find the underlying reasons for the gaps and/or strengths so that interventions can target these root causes and be more effective in improving performance. Root cause analysis should take place immediately following the review of performance gaps and strengths with stakeholders who have first-hand knowledge of the context within which the performance takes place.

Using the performance factors explained in the Performance Factors section and Diagnosing Performance Problems: What to Look at First in the Tools section as starting points, the stakeholder group participates in a root cause analysis to uncover the factors that are impeding good performance or contributing to high-level performance. There are a number of good root-cause analysis tools available. Some are informal and are useful for simpler problems with straightforward, obvious causes that can be arrived at by asking oneself, colleagues, or experts, “What could be the cause of the gap or strength?”


Slightly more structured techniques are recommended for more complex problems where the gaps or strengths may have several causes and where you want to involve the perspective of more stakeholders. These include the Five Whys Technique, the Fishbone Diagram, relationship mapping, and many others. Select the tool that you are most comfortable with and that you think will work best with your stakeholder group. The five whys or why-tree process is easy for groups to understand and is a practical way to facilitate tool selection.

Whatever technique is used, it is important to uncover in specific terms the lowest-level cause(s) that stakeholders can do something about. Elements of workplace or organizational performance that are operating at or above the desired level can also be analyzed to discern what makes them successful. This success can be recognized and rewarded, strengthened, and possibly replicated in other areas of the facility or elsewhere in the organizational system.

Be prepared to uncover numerous root causes—probably more than you can address initially. The process for identifying root causes should not be curtailed, however, even though you may not be able to address all of them with specific interventions. Causes that initially seem obvious may not be the only root causes, and it is common to discover other related causes that may be easier to address than you suspect. For this reason, it is important to pursue all lines of investigation to the fullest extent and then use predefined criteria to eliminate the causes that will not to be addressed before selecting the appropriate interventions.

As described in the Performance Factors section, root causes can generally be mapped directly to one or more of the six key categories of performance factors:

  1. Organizational systems
  2. Incentives
  3. Tools and physical environment
  4. Knowledge and skills
  5. Individual attributes
  6. External environment

There are two advantages in anchoring root causes to performance factors:

  • Interventions become clear and more focused
  • The root causes closest to the performers or group of performers and their work environment are identified

For interventions to be sustainable, the performers or their managers or supervisors must be able to address these root causes. Depending on the level of the OPQ exercise, root causes may be at the individual level, the unit/facility level, or at the institutional/organizational level. Some root causes are beyond the individual/unit/facility levels or beyond institutional control and may require support from higher levels.

Step 4.1: Conduct root cause analysis

Find the root cause(s) for each performance gap or strength using the method that best suits the needs of the group.

Step 4.2: Decide whether to work on each root cause

Some gaps or strengths may have underlying reasons that you cannot do anything about, or have already been rectified, or do not apply to other situations you may want to scale up. For example, a root cause that is related to a political, financial, or infrastructural constraint that you identified during Stage 1, Describe Context, may be difficult to do anything about—or it may need to be addressed at a higher level.

Sometimes you may uncover so many root causes of gaps that you will need to prioritize which ones to address or in what sequence. In this case you can use the same criteria that you used to prioritize the gaps and strengths, such as seriousness/urgency, frequency, alignment with organizational goals, effect on gender equality, time to solve, and cost. See Stage 3, step 3.3.2.

You may continue to use the Performance Specification Form in the Tools section by filling in the fourth column. See also Performance Specification Form Examples.