• June 2018
  • Vol. 19, No. 5

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Six Tasks That Will Help Your Agency Explore Challenges and Plan for Change

Written by the Children's Bureau's Capacity Building Center for States. 

Our article in the May issue of Children's Bureau Express discussed deeper problem exploration as a tool to plan for change and implement lasting solutions. Deeper problem exploration involves identifying a problem and systematically exploring data to verify the problem, describe under what circumstances it occurs, and identify those affected. How do you begin this process? Six basic tasks, sometimes called essential functions, can help agencies effectively initiate change.

  • Task 1: Identify a problem—A problem may come to an agency's attention from sources like external monitoring, quality improvement and evaluation processes, stakeholder input, or the media. Agencies should consider existing evidence, agency priorities and goals, and agency readiness to address the problem.
  • Task 2: Create a data plan—This requires gathering existing data and identifying other sources to better understand and communicate about the problem and its root causes. Core components of a comprehensive data plan include: research questions aimed at the problem's scope and variables; multiple quantitative and qualitative data sources that are reliable, timely, and relevant; data analysis; timelines; and role assignment.
  • Task 3: Collect and analyze data—This step involves drilling down, discussing, and documenting findings in order to verify the problem, understand why it occurs, and identify who is affected. The goal is to see what story the data tell through variations, patterns, disparities, characteristics of those affected, and strengths or limitations of the analysis and findings. Data experts, evaluators, and researchers are good sources for agencies to partner with in data analysis.
  • Task 4: Identify contributing factors and root causes—Agencies should identify possible contributing factors—things that affect the outcome of a problem but are not root causes—to set the stage for determining root causes. Root cause analysis (RCA) is a structured process that "drills down" to the origin of a problem, potential contributing factors, and possible solutions. RCA includes techniques like creating a visual illustration to document and explore the relationships between possible contributing factors and the problem or applying the 5 Whys method to explore contributing factors.
  • Task 5: Explore and validate root causes—Here, the agency uses data to validate root causes and explores its organizational capacity to successfully address them. Agencies should strive to identify data or other evidence that links the contributing factors to the root causes and then validate root causes by engaging CQI and data experts, focus groups, stakeholders, and subject matter experts to confirm theories and causal connections. After validation, agencies should consider which root causes are within the agency's control and the level of organizational support needed to address them.
  • Task 6: Isolate the root cause(s) to address—Finally, the agency selects which root cause(s) to address. Selection should reflect 1) data pointing to the root cause as a source of the problem; 2) likelihood that changes in policies, programs, or practices will address the root cause; and 3) team consensus.


These six tasks give agencies a systematic way to understand the problem and why it is occurring so that they can implement effective solutions.

The following resources provide more information on deeper problem exploration:

  1. "5 Whys: Getting to the Root of a Problem Quickly"
  2. "Determine the Root Cause: 5 Whys"
  3. "Root Cause Analysis for Beginners"
  4. "Root Cause Analysis: Keep the Questions Coming"
  5. "Focused CQI Services, Indepth Skill Building – Module 5: Data Analysis for CQI – Identifying and Understanding the Problem" (requires free registration)

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