How to Troubleshoot Underperformance: Identify Root Cause and Improve Lessons Learned

Note: in last week’s post, I said I’d publish personal goals this week. I’m behind schedule on that, so this week I’m publishing this supplement to prior articles about building and motivating teams.

When things aren’t going your way, or when team members are underperforming, take a look at the symptoms, then see if you can pinpoint the cause.

With a little detective work up front, it’s far easier to solve a problem early, before it gets out of hand, than it is to recover a crisis later.

When you can get to the real cause, instead of just focusing on symptoms, you can often put in place a plan to address the real problem.

With the real problem addressed, the situation will change.

Performing one or more of the following 3 analyses can yield valuable lessons learned for future planning and execution.

1. 2 factor performance assessment

In HR assessments, there are classically only 2 likely causes:

  • Ability
  • Motivation

It’s a simple model, and worthwhile to look at from this point of view.

Someone who’s unable may never be able. Alternatively, it may be that training or coaching is all that’s necessary to turn a low performer into a competent contributor.

Alternatively, someone who’s unmotivated may need minimal additional resources to find motivation. Others may have issues or concerns a company can never fulfill.

Looking at these 2 elements of a person’s or team’s underperformance can yield meaningful insights about the possibility and potential to improve their performance.

2. Take a closer look at motivation and attention

In situations where we’re trying to identify personal success factors, there may be more at play. A combination of models noted below identify the following criteria among those that may result in low achievement. While these are identified as causes of low achievement for students, they certainly can apply to anyone, in any area. Notably, they begin with motivation, and the remaining items on the list contribute to low motivation, attention, or ability.

  • low motivation
  • boredom
  • dislike of school
  • social-emotional difficulties
  • unstable family life
  • lack of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation
  • lack of self-regulation
  • lack of self-efficacy

Whether you’re diagnosing your own failure to perform, or the performance of a friend, family member, or staff member, each of these possible root causes of underachievement is worth considering.

3. 6 Sigma’s 5 Why’s

Finally, one more model for identifying root cause of under performance (or any problem) is to ask “Why?” 5 times.


Name the problem: I was written up at work.

Start asking “Why?”. For every answer, ask “Why?” again.

  • Why? I was late a third time in a month.
  • Why? I ran into heavy traffic.
  • Why? I left my house later than I need to to be on time.
  • Why? My child was sick, and I needed to take her to daycare instead of school.
  • Why? I don’t have enough resources for childcare on short notice.

If you haven’t learned something useful yet, keep asking why until you get to a useful piece of information. The number “5” is just a rule of thumb: you may yield meaningful results with less than 5 “Whys”, or it may take more.


  1. Identify an area you or another person has not met expectations.
  2. Identify the root cause of the underachievement:
    1. Use the 2 factor assessment
    2. Use the more detailed assessment
    3. Use the 5 Why’s approach
  3. What have you seen that you didn’t see before about the situation?
  4. What new actions do you see to take, that may yield new results?
  5. What have you learned about the person or the situation that you can enter as Lessons Learned on your PowerBoard, for future reference?

More Information

Photo Credits

Fresh Lemonade: Photo by Francesca Hotchin on Unsplash. Link.

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