Drill Down technique

Drill Down technique - toolshero

Drill Down technique: this article explains the Drill Down technique in a practical way. After reading this article, you’ll understand the basics of this powerful tool for problem solving.

What is the Drill Down technique?

The Drill Down technique is a method for gaining insight into the root causes of a problem within a department or area. After the root causes are known, a larger plan can be devised to address the problem.

A Drill Down is not the same as a diagnosis, but rather a broad and deep general examination. Furthermore, the technique is not used to find out the causes of all problems, but only the 20 percent of the causes behind 80 percent of the effects. This is a principle from the Pareto-analysis.

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When a major problem arises with potentially major consequences, one of the best things that can be done is to split the problem into several components until the problem is resolved. This can be done with the Drill Down technique. By dividing a larger process into smaller pieces, an overview is created and the problem can be solved step by step.
Drill Down Technique model - toolshero
A Drill Down is executed by following multiple steps. These steps will be further explained in this article. In addition to the broad research, two steps aimed at the design and implementation of the solution are additionally carried out. The complete process should take no more than four hours, depending on the magnitude of the problem. It is very important that the steps are performed separately and independently.

Method of the Drill Down technique

The technique starts with a table describing the main problem in the leftmost column. The factors and causes that create this problem are then described right next to it in the second column. The idea is to “drill through” until the real causes of the problem are identified. Solutions are then built based on these causes.

The idea here is that it is easier to deal with poor time management than poor quality customer service in general. In addition, some other causes of poor customer service are also discussed.

Step 1: Note down the most important problem

The aim of the first step is to take inventory of all core problems. Be specific in this, and do not generalise or use plurals such as “we” and “they”. Also mention the names of people who are affected by the problem. This is the only way to work on solutions effectively.

Have every individual connected in any way to the problem at hand participate in this Drill Down. You will benefit from this because they each bring their own insight to the brainstorming table. Don’t focus on a rare event or trivial problems. Don’t focus on the pursuit of unrealistic perfection, either.

Leave the search for solutions to the following steps. In the first step it is especially important that the problems are summarised.

Step 2: Identify the causes of the problems

In the second step, the more deeply rooted reasons causing the problems are identified. Often problems arise in different departments because it is not clear who is responsible, or because someone does not account for his or her responsibilities. Direct causes must be distinguished from underlying causes.

To find out the root cause of a problem, the Five Times Why method can be used, for example. Below is an example:

  • Problem: The project team is working overtime too often and is in danger of burning out
  • Why? There isn’t enough capacity to meet the team’s demands
  • Why? Because new responsibilities have been added without extra resources
  • Why? Because the manager did not correctly estimate the amount of work before taking responsibility
  • Why? Because the manager is unable to anticipate problems and make plans

Relevant individuals should not be left out while performing this Drill Down technique. At the same time, remember that people tend to respond defensively to criticism. It is the manager’s job to find out the truth and to come up with a good solution. In practice, this can mean that people have to be trained, relocated, or even fired.

After this step, take a short break and then start developing a plan.

Step 3: Make a plan

The third step is to develop a plan that addresses the root causes of a problem. Such an implementation plan works like a script: everything that has to be done and by whom is visualised and recorded. Risk management also plays an important role in this. The likelihood of achieving goals is set against the costs and risks. The plan must consist of at least:

  • A timeline
  • Specific tasks and responsibilities
  • Measuring variables
  • Results

Step 4: Implement the plan

Execute the established implementation plan and be transparent in documenting progress. Report at least once a month on actual progress and expectations for the coming period.

Drill Down technique in combination with other methods

The Drill Down technique fits seamlessly with other forms and methods of problem solving. The closest method is the 5-Why analysis. Both methods aim to get to the heart of a problem instead of solving all sorts of other problems first.

Neither method provides a quick way to a solution, but that isn’t the solution that should be sought anyway. Instead, it makes much more sense to have a clear understanding of the situational aspects of doing business.

It is very important that everyone in a company is on the same page when it comes to using the Drill Down technique. The method will not be optimally effective within the company if only a small part of the team uses the method.

Take the time to teach everyone how to get to the root of a problem by zooming in with the Drill Down technique. As indicated, the Drill Down technique does not automatically solve problems, but when used properly it can certainly help to move forward.

Drill Down Technique: pitfalls in general problem solving

Problem solving is not achieved by simply employing methods and frameworks and following them blindly. It is a very broad discipline in which various effects occur that can hinder the way to the solution. In general problem solving and research, there are the following pitfalls to watch out for.

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency for people to seek or interpret information in a way that confirms a person’s previous knowledge, values or beliefs. It is an important type of bias that has a significant effect on the effective performance of problem-solving methods such as the Drill Down technique.

People show this bias when they collect or remember information and interpret it in a biased way. For example, a team member may choose information while preparing for a new task that supports their beliefs and ignore what is not supportive. This effect is strongest when people envision desired outcomes, when a problem is emotionally charged, and for deeply held beliefs.

Perceptual expectations

A perceptual expectation in psychology is also called a set. A set is a group of expectations that shape a specific experience by making people sensitive to certain types of information. It is the disposition or habit to perceive things in a certain way.

This was demonstrated in an experiment by Abraham Luchins in the 1940s. In this experiment, participants were asked to fill a pitcher with a specific amount of water with the aid of only three other pitchers of different capacities.

After Luchins gave the participants this problem that could be solved by a simple technique, he gave them new assignments for other pitchers. This new problem could be solved by the same method, or by a newer and simpler method.

Luchins found that many of his participants tended to use the same old technique, despite the possibility for a better method. Thus, the mental set describes a person’s tendency to solve problems in a way that has previously proven successful.

As in Luchins’ experiment, choosing a method that has worked in the past is sometimes no longer sufficient or optimal for the new problem. Therefore, it is necessary for people to transcend their mental set.

Functional fixation

Functional fixation is a cognitive bias that limits a person to using or accessing an object only as it is traditionally used. This fixation also occurs when solving a problem through the Drill Down Technique. The concept of functional fixation stems from the Gestalt psychological movement.

This movement emphasizes holistic processing. Karl Duncker defined functional fixation as a mental block against using an object in a new way that is necessary to solve a problem. This block limits an individual’s ability to complete a task or solve a problem, as it does not look beyond the original purpose of the components of the solution.

Functional fixation is the inability to see, for example, the use of a hammer as anything different than for hitting nails.

Unnecessary limitations

Unnecessary limitations- or constraints, is a barrier that occurs when people subconsciously set limits on the task at hand. A well-known example of this is the point problem. In this assignment nine points are arranged in a square of three by three.

The task is to draw no more than four lines, without removing the pen or pencil from the paper, to connect all the dots. In the minds of the people who have never seen this problem before, the thought probably arises that the line does not come out of the square of the points. Unnecessary restrictions in this case are about literally thinking ‘outside the box’.

The term group mindset is also linked to unnecessary restrictions. Group thinking, or adopting the mentality of the group members, occurs when team members start to think the same. This is common, but also ensures that people take longer to start thinking “outside the box”.

Irrelevant information

Irrelevant information is information presented within the context of a problem but unrelated to the specific problem. Within the context of the problem, irrelevant information has no influence on whether or not the problem is solved. In fact, irrelevant information is often detrimental to the problem-solving process. Irrelevant information is a common problem that people struggle with. This is mainly because people are not aware of the existence of irrelevant information.

One of the reasons that irrelevant information is so effective in keeping people from the solution is how it is presented. The way information is presented can make a big difference for the level of interpreted difficulty of the problem. Below is a well-known example of irrelevant information in the Buddhist monk problem.

A monk starts walking up a mountain at sunrise one day and reaches the temple at the top of the mountain at sunset. After a few days of meditation, he leaves at sunrise to descend from the mountain. He arrives at sunset. There is a spot along the path the monk takes both ways where he will pass at the same time of the day.

To discover this point, the solver must not think about the problem in mathematical terms, or in terms of distances. Instead, a visual representation of the problem works. Imagine that the monk’s path begins as he ascends the mountain at sunrise. The path back down also starts at sunrise. If the paths start at opposite ends at the same time, they must meet somewhere.

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Now it is your turn

What do you think? Do you recognise yourself in the explanation of the Drill Down method? Is this tool used in your own working environment? If not, do you think this could be valuable in your work? What other helpful troubleshooting methods and tools do you know? What do you believe are pros and cons of the Drill Down technique? Do you have any tips or solutions?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. de Aguiar Ciferri, C. D., Ciferri, R. R., Forlani, D. T., Traina, A. J. M., & da Fonseca de Souza, F. (2007, March). Horizontal fragmentation as a technique to improve the performance of drill-down and roll-up queries. In Proceedings of the 2007 ACM symposium on Applied computing (pp. 494-499).
  2. Joglekar, M., Garcia-Molina, H., & Parameswaran, A. (2017). Interactive data exploration with smart drill-down. IEEE Transactions on Knowledge and Data Engineering, 31(1), 46-60.
  3. McDonald, A., & Leyhane, T. (2005). Drill down with root cause analysis. Nursing management, 36(10), 26-31.

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Published on: 22/11/2020 | Last update: 04/03/2022

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Ben Janse
Article by:

Ben Janse

Ben Janse is a young professional working at ToolsHero as Content Manager. He is also an International Business student at Rotterdam Business School where he focusses on analyzing and developing management models. Thanks to his theoretical and practical knowledge, he knows how to distinguish main- and side issues and to make the essence of each article clearly visible.


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