How to make a problem tree: Practical example

There are many methods and methodologies based on the tree analogy. The problem tree and the objective tree are examples of this. On this occasion we deal with the first of them.

It is today’s topic for business management with Ingenio Empresa.

What is the problem tree

Also known as the tree method, problem tree technique, situational analysis or problem analysis, this tool allows us to map or diagram the problem. The structure of a problem tree is:

At the roots are the causes of the problem
The trunk represents the main problem
In the leaves and branches are the effects or consequences.

It is a way to represent the problem, achieving at a glance to understand what is happening (main problem), why it is happening (causes) and what is causing it (effects or consequences), which allows us to do several things in the project planning, as you will see below in the advantages.

Advantages of the problem tree

What is the purpose of a problem tree? The 4 most important and that summarize all the others are:

  • It allows us to break down the problem, the causes and its effects, improving its analysis.
  • There is a better understanding of the problem by disaggregating it into causes and consequences.
  • It is linked to other research and analysis tools such as the Vester matrix or solution tree.
  • Facilitates the realization of other important components of a research or project in its planning stage, e.g. stakeholder analysis, risk analysis and objectives.

The problem tree in project planning

The Japanese often tell us that an identified problem already constitutes 90% of the solution, which is why the logical framework methodology gives so much importance to problem analysis. The planning work we do with the problem tree and the objective tree is a very important part of problem identification.

Having made this introduction, it is important that you know the importance of using the problem tree in conjunction with other tools, where what we seek is to:

  • Obtain significant data to describe the problem
  • Determine the causes and effects
  • Elaborate project objectives

You will understand it better when we start to elaborate a problem tree step by step:

How to make a problem tree step by step

  1. Analyze the situation: Yes, you know there is a problem situation, but analyze it. What is happening, why is it happening and what is triggering it. Collect data that will allow you to understand the problem situation. This in itself will give you a lot of input for the next step.
  2. Identify the main problems of the situation you have analyzed: Any technique to generate ideas will be useful. A team brainstorming, defining by consensus what the main problem is, is usually a good alternative. However, if the problem is much more technical and requires many experts and discussions, since it is complex to differentiate causes from effects, try the Vester matrix. This alone will allow you to prioritize the main problem, and will get you a few steps ahead by giving you causes and effects of the main problem.
  3. Determine the effects and causes of the main problem: You already have the trunk of the tree, now identify the causes (roots) and the effects or consequences (leaves or branches). Again, it is better if this is done as a team, seeking to reach a consensus. If in step 2 you elaborated the Vester matrix, you will already have this step quite clear.
  4. Draw the tree: Simple. We will see how in the example below.
  5. Go deeper into causes and effects: Solving the core problem will be much easier as you determine the root causes and effects. That is, if you have already determined a cause, is it possible that this cause is brought about by something else in turn? Draw a line and go as deep as possible.

With this done, all that remains is to move from the problem tree to the objective tree, taking causes to means and consequences to ends.

Example of a problem tree

Based on the steps described above, let’s look at an example of a problem tree:

In step 1: Colusa Inc is a web hosting company. In the last semester, it has been presenting a 35% increase in complaints and claims from its customers. Colusa Inc made a classification of the reasons for the complaints by analyzing their frequency. In addition to this, telephone and e-mail interviews were conducted with customers who had reported complaints, which allowed us to further refine the classification.

In step 2 we identify the problems: From this example and depending on the classification made, we could obtain several problems depending on which one is affecting us the most. In this case we would be choosing a specific option, however in this example we are going to work with the general option. Consequently, the main problem is: Increase of 35% in customer complaints and claims in the last quarter of the year by hiring hosting services.

In step 3 we will identify the causes and effects. With the information collected above, we are already well on our way. The three main types of complaints are:

  • After-sales service is bad: The personnel sent do not know what they are doing and are sometimes rude (this includes telephone support).
  • Poor quality of the product: It does not work when installed, the website crashes frequently or does not have enough hosting capacity.
  • The product went up too much in price

And as you can see, these are direct causes.

What we have so far from the problem tree is the following:

The first to be identified is usually the causes. Now we identify the effects. In addition to thinking about all the possible effects that the main problem may have, we will consider the 1 to 1 effects of each cause, where, for example, a poor after-sales service will reduce the number of purchases made by customers. The result is as follows:

This in itself would already be a problem tree, but if we want to make this tool useful, we must get to the bottom of the causes and effects. In the example below, we show up to the second level: This would be the finished problem tree.


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Featured image in the post is from: Freepik

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