How Can We Find the Root Cause of the Problem?

Written by Jason Haines

“A relentless barrage of ‘why’s’ is the best way to prepare your mind to pierce the clouded veil of thinking caused by the status quo. Use it often.” -Shigeo Shingo

In many areas and walks of life there are constant problems and issues that affect our lives, and we either deal with or complain about them. But, in most cases, we never seem to try to find the root cause of why those things continue to happen. Our typical pattern is the same problem happens, we see it happening, we panic, firefight the problem, point fingers and blame, and then we repeat. Why do we keep, and I am guilty of this as well, going through this same vicious cycle and never making any changes?

In the corporate world we have become programmed to be the firefighter and put band aids on things that never fix the real problem; we are rewarded for this behavior. In Lean we call this adding waste to the process because those firefighting tactics are usually adding a check, or extra step to the process. This added step is not a good for the overall system, but because we fix the immediate problem we are rewarded. It is no wonder that today’s world has more technology but is busier than ever before. Because most of the time we didn’t go in and find the root cause of the problem and fix the problem for good.

So how can we learn how to fix the root cause of any problem that we are trying to solve? Before I dive into this, I want to let everyone know that the biggest thing we need to do is stop firefighting and learn how to fully solve the problem. A recent book I read by Thomas Sowell speaks about this as going beyond first level thinking and understanding how our rash decisions will affect over time. This deeper thinking is what Root Cause Analysis does for all of us. Especially in Lean Thinking and using it to solve the problems with the many tools that we are provided.

So how do we start to find the root cause of the any issue or problem that we are having? The first step of anything that we are doing is to state what it is. In this case we would be stating or describing the problems that our organization is currently having. By doing this we are starting to understand what we want to accomplish and understanding the hurdle that we need to get through to succeed. Now let’s remember, we cannot get to this step and just solve the problem. When we firefight we are only stopping the surface problems and we are not taking care of the full symptom. We must push forward.

Our next step to Root Cause problem solving process is to gather all the data associated with a problem. This is where many stop because this takes time for us to do. This is where we need to start our investigating of the issues we are having and take the time needed in order to solve the problem. As we say document, document, document. And I mean everything in the process so that when we come to our next step, we have everything we need. It will be important that nothing is missed or dismissed as unimportant.

With the third step in Root Cause problem solving we will be looking for potential causes of the problems that we are having. Therefore, I said we need to make sure we document everything that we see. Ask questions of the frontline employees of what they are seeing within the process, but make sure when you are doing this, they understand you are there to help them and not judging their work. Making the frontline employees comfortable is ultra-important because it helps you get them to speak up more about what is going on within the processes. It will also be important later during the brainstorming and testing of the process, as the frontline employees will be more apt to participate.

Steps four and five is where the brainstorming comes in to play in the Root Cause Analysis. With Step Four we are going to decide which steps we will be removing or changing in order to make sure that the problems we are having are taken care of. When we are preventing our issues, we can find things that will help us such as Poka Yoke. Poka Yoke is Japanese for mistake proofing, and we would be building in ways to mistake proof a process. But keep in mind that we do not want to add paperwork, or computer steps in this spot. We want to find a fixture, or quick check that can help us assure that the problem will not happen.

Step five is where we would come up with the ideas such as Poka Yoke; identifying the ideas that will be effective to help us solve the problems and keep them from repeating. Steps four and five are important and where we start to develop teamwork and brainstorming. This is where the ideas begin to flow, and everyone can have their input. Remember when brainstorming that there are no bad ideas, and no one should be discouraged from having input. And as I said earlier, let the frontline employees know what you are doing observing their processes. It will come in handy as they will be participating in this part of the process. It is very important to include frontline employees in this part because they are the ones who are and will be doing the work. You will also want them to be part of this step because the next phase of Root Cause Analysis.

This phase, step six, is where we implement and test the changes that we have come up with to help solve our issues. Always remember we are not trying to add steps to the process unless they are simple and do not take time. But our real goal in making and implementing changes is to simplify. We want to make changes that are subtracting unnecessary steps in order to make the process better. With Root Cause Analysis, and Lean Thinking, we are trying to find a way to simplify and make processes easier by eliminating the non-value-added steps from the process. So, we do not want to create more headaches by adding steps in the implementation phase, or step six.

The last step, step seven, is where we observe the changes and make sure they are effective in eliminating the constant issues. This is really a repeat of the cycle, and in any project management cycle, whether PDCA, PDSA, DMAIC, etc. we are just repeating throughout the cycle to keep solving issues within the process and continuously improving. This is where the we achieve the continuous improvement to sustain any change in our organization. Over time, little by little, we can change our company with sustained continuous improvement.

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