BACK TO BASICS
Know Your Roots
The cultural advantages of root cause analysis
by David Kachoui
Solving root cause problems is a vital component of continual improvement,1 but it’s a weakness for most organizations because their employees lack expertise in root cause analysis. Cultivating this ability in your staff can give your organization long-term, competitive advantages. To do this, root cause analysis must be a priority and deliberately practiced in your organization.
Managers who overrate their root cause abilities are not compelled to learn and improve. Anyone can ask the five whys, find a clever insight, feel proud and stop there. But remember, just because auditors and clients accept your root causes doesn’t prove your organization has the appropriate expertise. Did your external auditors delve deeply into issues and challenge your root causes? Did your clients know what a true root cause was?
There are two root cause categories in management—the process and group dynamic2—and four defining criteria:
- It’s a specific underlying cause.
- It can reasonably be identified.
- Management has control to fix it.
- Effective recommendations for preventing recurrences can be generated.3
Challenge the process
W. Edwards Deming proposed improving your processes because 94% of the time, the system is at fault.4 When people assume the process is "the rule," they don’t question it. Instead, they provide red herrings (misleading or distracting clues), blame, excuses and solutions that masquerade as root causes. For example, consider this hypothetical five whys:
Q: Why were the parts wrong?
A: Because we had no time to get them right. (Red herring.)
Q: Why didn’t you have time?
A: Because there’s too much work. (Excuse.)
Q: Why is there too much work?
A: Because we only have five people. (Solution.)
Q: Why do you only have five people?
A: Because they won’t approve hiring. (Solution, blame.)
Q: Why won’t they hire?
A: Because they only care about money. (Blame.)
In this case, the interviewer didn’t start with the right question. Asking, "What in our process allowed this to happen?" makes people think on a deeper level, yielding more fruitful insights.
The group dynamic
Nothing ruins a group dynamic like complaining and blaming. They’re infectious habits that managers must identify as red flags.
I met a manager who believed his job was to complain about the top problems so people would be motivated to fix them. His team adopted his behavior, and people lined up outside his office every day to voice complaints. What did the manager do about all the complaining? He complained.
Blaming is a cousin to complaining. Saying, "It’s your fault," wastes time and energy, and management must take ownership of problems rather than assume people don’t care enough. Foster a productive group dynamic by taking co-ownership and saying, "OK, let’s figure out what in our system allowed this to happen." The underlying message is, "We got into this together, and we’ll figure it out together."
Continuous improvement depends on staff development with support from leadership.5 The long-term goal of each root cause analysis is to enhance that skill in the organization.
The organization’s culture must be changed by working with employees to understand and solve problems. Managers should be the lead detectives who train other root cause detectives and foster a culture of true problem solving.
- Jeffrey K. Liker and James K. Franz, The Toyota Way to Continuous Improvement, McGraw-Hill Education, 2011, p. 427.
- Ralph Biggadike, "Top Management Process," course at Columbia Business School, 2010.
- James J. Rooney and Lee N. Vanden Heuvel, "Root Cause Analysis for Beginners," Quality Progress, July 2004, pp. 45-53.
- W. Edwards Deming, The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education, MIT Press, 1994, p. 33.
- Jeffrey K. Liker and James K. Franz, The Toyota Way to Continuous Improvement, see reference 1.
David Kachoui is the director of business development for Natech Plastics Inc. in Ronkonkoma, NY. He holds an MBA from Columbia University in New York City. Kachoui is an ASQ member and a Project Management Institute-certified project management professional.