Root Cause Analysis: Time for a Culture Shift

Managers and organizations often take pride when they address a problem quickly. If something breaks, you see it and fix it. Done. Right?

Well… not necessarily. That small issue is often a symptom of a bigger problem. And if you don’t get to the root cause of that problem, it’s bound to come back—or even get worse.

That’s why we recommend adopting root cause analysis as a regular part of your operations. Too many times we see organizations apply a band aid when they should really be looking at preventative care. But much like a minor medical issue could signal a far worse disease, a seemingly simple hiccup in your operations might indicate a more harmful issue down the road.

Getting past the quick-fix mentality will require a culture shift in your organization, but the benefits of root cause analysis are hard to ignore:

Cost Reduction – By getting to the core issue, you can stop a recurring problem—and the recurring costs of fixing it.

Risk Reduction – Root cause analysis helps you understand your risks, since they usually lie in these bigger problems that you uncover. Risk-informed decisions lead to smarter operations.

Improved Performance – This one is pretty simple; if you address the root cause to stop the issues on the surface, you’ll operate more efficiently and see better productivity.

Create a Better Solution Process – Adopting a culture of root cause analysis can lead to a better understanding of how one part of your operations affects another. This in turn helps you create a better process for solving problems.

Added Value and Credibility – The willingness to dig deeper in your problem-solving processes shows your stakeholders that you’re willing to invest the time necessary to do things the right way.

We have more in common than we think.

Every organization is unique, with its own methods and cultures. Yet they often have a lot in common with the challenges they face.

When we work on a process improvement project, we lead a team through a series of exercises to perform this root cause analysis. And while our clients come from a wide range of industries, we’ve found that the root causes of their problems can be traced to one of four issues:

  1. Inadequate communication
  2. Time management/not being proactive
  3. Not leveraging technology
  4. Lack of accountability

It’s evocative of the Pareto Principle. Also known as the 80/20 rule, it’s an analysis technique that helps to identify the few top causes of issues. Applied to root cause analysis, you could say that 80% of the problems you see are likely the result of just 20% of causes. By addressing these causes, you could conceivably eradicate a large portion of operational issues.

The “Five Whys”

A hallmark technique in process improvement, the Five Whys are a great way to get to the root cause of an issue. The idea is simple; you first ask why something happened, and then ask why when addressing that reason. Pretend that you’re a toddler and keep repeating the question until you get to the answer—something that generally happens around the fifth why (hence the name).

For a simple example, let’s say you have a frequent lack of toilet paper in the bathroom. Your first thought would be to just tell your employees to replace the roll when it’s empty. But asking a few whys of your staff members can change the picture entirely:

  1. Why is there no toilet paper? Because I didn’t replace the roll.
  2. Why didn’t you replace the roll? Because there wasn’t any toilet paper in the cabinet.
  3. Why wasn’t there any toilet paper in the cabinet? Because the cleaning service hasn’t restocked it.
  4. Why hasn’t the cleaning service restocked it? Because nobody has told them we’re out of toilet paper.
  5. Why has nobody told them we’re out of toilet paper? Because nobody knows who is supposed to contact them.

And there’s your answer. It’s not simply that someone didn’t replace the toilet paper. There’s a lack of understanding of your administrative processes with your staff members. This in turn could shed light on other operational issues you might have.

Among the four main causes of issues we cited earlier, this example could fall under inadequate communication—something that can easily be addressed by breaking down silos between personnel and departments.

Should we always do a root cause analysis?

As much as we wholeheartedly embrace root cause analysis, it’s not always necessary. Sometimes it’s obvious that a problem at the surface is exactly what it seems, and you address it and move on.

So how do you know whether a root cause analysis is in order? There are a few telltale signs, with the most notable one being repeatedly having to solve the same problem. If your surface-level fix doesn’t stop it from occurring, it’s time to dig deeper for another cause.

Another sign is a fire drill-like environment at the end of a project. Most of us have been there before; everything seems like it is humming along smoothly… only to find just before deadline that your customer isn’t happy, deliverables are late and everyone on your team is scrambling to get things done. Root cause analysis usually finds that something was missing at the start of the project, be it a critical step or an open channel of communication.

If you notice duplicate efforts in your work, a root cause analysis might be in order. For example, maybe your organization has invested in new software or other technology to streamline a task. If you haven’t properly trained your team members on the new features (or explained that they were meant to streamline a time-consuming task), your process may still include some manual work in addition to what technology can do for you.

Adopting a culture of root cause analysis is a big step in making your process improvement efforts more successful. But it is exactly that—a culture. The reflex is strong to go back to that band aid approach, so work this analysis into as many aspects problem solving as you can to develop this habit.

If your organization is about to undertake a major change—a big expenditure, major policy or procedure change, or any significant action to make something better—dig deeper to find the real root cause before you implement your improvement ideas. Our Operational Excellence team can guide you through the root cause analysis process and help you better manage your operations and utilize your resources.

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