Has something like this happened to you? One of your employees comes to you for guidance on an immediate problem. You ask a few questions to determine the scope of the problem. The issue is creating disruption in the flow of work, so you suggest a creative and practical work around. You’re skilled at this kind of problem solving, quickly reacting to minimize or eliminate any negative impact caused by the problem. Once your solution is in place work continues.
This scenario is played out many times a day in our organizations. On the surface, this type of problem solving is effective and practical. Your organization probably rewards managers for keeping work flowing on schedule regardless of challenges and obstacles.
Why, then, do the same problems and issues appear over and over again?
The answer is simple. Traditional problem solving focuses on symptoms and overcomes them without giving more than the briefest thought to the root cause of those symptoms. Root cause analysis and solutions to root cause problems are the only way eliminate the recurring problems that limit your organizations productivity and success.
What is Root Cause Analysis?
A root cause is the underlying situation or trigger that creates a surface level problem. By definition, a root cause must be identifiable, specific, and under the scope of management’s ability to control. General classifications like “operator error” are not specific enough to be considered root causes. External factors outside of the control of management are also not considered root causes.
Root cause analysis starts with a belief that unless an organization identifies the behaviors, circumstances, or actions that created an issue and implements appropriate change at that level common problems will continue indefinitely. Managers must use logic and look beyond the symptoms of an issue until they discover the underlying problem creating those symptoms.
In the heat of the moment there’s a lot of pressure to act quickly. Effective root cause analysis requires a change in this mindset. You must be willing to look past the immediate issue and stay actively involved in problem solving until the root cause is found and corrected.
This doesn’t mean you should avoid a temporary solution. Business isn’t perfect and often a temporary countermeasure is needed to meet customer expectations in the short run. Notice the word temporary. Your ultimate goal should always be a long term solution that eliminates recurring problems at the source.
Tips for Successful Root Cause Analysis
- Be Patient – Root cause analysis takes time. It’s much faster to put a quick solution in place and move on. When you consider all the time your team spent in the past year addressing the same recurring issue, however, the extra problem solving time is a good investment.
- Use Fact, Not Assumption –Root cause analysis is based in logic. Just like an attorney, you must stick with evidence rather than conjecture to get a good solution. After every statement, ask yourself or your team “How do we know?” This simple question will help you remove speculation from the process.
- Expect Resistance – Root cause issues usually involve habitual behavior, long standing processes or unquestioned assumptions. Solutions require changes in process, materials, equipment, or even employee competency. Your team may resist significant change.
- Keep an Open Mind – Those unquestioned assumptions from the previous point? Some of them might be yours. Make sure you look at the problem objectively and question your own assumptions. The issue you dismiss without exploring could be the root cause!
- Involve a Team – Problems don’t just impact the immediate process. Disruptions in the flow of work affect multiple people in your organization. Involving representatives from each affected group in problem solving efforts gives you a total system perspective. You need their input.
- Test your Solutions – Root cause analysis is based on the scientific method. It’s very common to identify a single root cause and quickly implement a solution. Don’t just walk away at that point. A solution is still a theory until it’s results are tested over time. Dedicate yourself and your team to the long run, making sure to test results. Be willing to adjust the solution if needed.