coaching root cause analysis

By Jennifer Turvey, Improvement Practitioner and Coach

A Demanding Process

Root cause analysis is a demanding process for both the problem solver and the coach.

Typical steps for root cause analysis include:

  • Confirm you have the right people available
  • Articulate the specific issue you are addressing
  • Review the information you have and go get more data
  • Peel back the onion to reveal the truth
  • Find the root cause – easier said than done
  • Craft a root cause statement of fact

Successful root cause analysis involves observation, research, persistent inquiry, and merciless drill-down.

For the problem solver, this means a willingness to back up, take the occasional U-turn, and stay open to deeper exploration for as long as it takes.

For the coach, it’s important to help the problem solver move forward and persevere in this thinking process.

Coaching Root Cause Analysis

Two Techniques

A coach can keep the problem solver on the road to finding the root cause by reaching for techniques which are a touch more forceful and encouraging.

This is the time for breakthrough thinking. It is not the time for letting frustration take hold or jumping to conclusions.

Two of the best techniques for a coach to use during root cause analysis are:

  • Power questions
  • Challenge questions

Let’s look closer at each one:

Coaching Root Cause Analysis

Power Questions

Power questions are simple and direct inquiries which put a stop to confusion when a conversation goes off track or loses focus.

A power question can:

  • Expand the terrain when the problem solver is limiting their thinking
  • Disrupt the tendency for jumping to conclusions
  • Create action when someone is making excuses or giving up
  • Stop diversions down the wrong path

Asking a power question interrupts the flow of the person’s thinking and helps them move to a different place. This can often be most effective during the middle steps of root cause analysis when more data is needed and peeling back the onion is creating more questions than answers.

When you ask a power question, silence is likely to follow. It’s critical to give the person a few moments to reflect and respond.

Here are a few power questions you might find useful:

  • What does that mean?
  • Where else have you looked?
  • What are you assuming?
  • Who should you talk to?

Sometimes, a power question can be so disarmingly simple that it seems dumb. No need to over-engineer your question. The goal is to shake things up and get back on track.

Power Questions

Challenge Questions

We often think of challenging in terms of confronting, drawing a line in the sand, or holding your ground.

But in coaching, a good challenge helps the problem solver move forward. A challenge opens possibilities, rather than stopping a person in their tracks. The goal is to make it possible for learning from mistakes, developing skills, and refueling the engine of inspiration.

A challenge question can:

  • Nudge a person into looking under a few more rocks
  • Point out inconsistencies or flaws in logic
  • Ask the problem solver to trust the process
  • Identify different perspectives

Asking a challenge question can move the problem solver forward. This can be useful during all of the steps of root cause analysis. But is most helpful when articulating the issue and crafting the statement of fact.

Here are a few challenge questions you might find useful:

  • Where else could you look?
  • Is that consistent with your problem statement?
  • Do you feel that step is complete?
  • What is the impact on the customer?

Not all challenges need a question mark. Here are a few challenge statements which can work just as well:

  • I’m noticing this assumes…
  • You mentioned earlier…
  • I wonder what the folks in customer service think…
  • This seems to be too easy…

Sometimes, a challenge question is needed when progress is slow and frustration is building. Keep the focus on working the root cause analysis process and understanding how the easy problems have been solved – you have one of the tough problems and this will not be easy!

Challenge Questions


Root cause analysis requires precisely defined issues and exhaustive analysis as well as persistence, digging deeper, and digging elsewhere.

As an observer to the problem solver’s thinking process, the coach must guide and support the person in remaining inspired and staying alert to possibilities.

A power question can stop confusion and help get the process back on track.

A challenge question can highlight areas of resistance and inconsistencies.

Both techniques can move the process forward.

Root cause analysis is not an easy walk in the park. The easy problems have been solved and today’s problem solvers are working very tough issues. Coaching these problem solvers, through root cause analysis, requires reaching into the coaches toolbox for questions which are up to the challenge.

Coaching Root Cause Analysis

About Jennifer Turvey

Jenn is completing a one-year professional coaching certification. She currently coaches clients and works as a freelance writer and instructional designer.

She has her Lean and Six Sigma Green Belt and previously worked as an improvement and operational planning practitioner for the State of Colorado.

Jenn studied spiritual and religious experience in her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and is a perpetual student of human development and personal growth.

She enjoys snowshoeing, eating, homebrewing, and drinking a good beer while reading a good book.

Jenn Turvey

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