Did you ever struggle with some seemingly unresolvable problem? We always come across problem situations in all sizes and shapes where some problems keep reappearing no matter what you do. Such problems are not only difficult to handle, but also waste lot of resources be it individual or organisational.
With as many problems as we are all faced with in our personal or work life, it seems as if there is never enough time to solve each one without dealing with some challenges along the way. Many times, we tend to take short-cuts to temporarily solve certain issues on the surface, so we can move onto the next. In the process, we often fail to reach a completely solved state or prevent certain problem situations from reoccurring.
However, when you try to address only the effects, you often get limited, sometimes stuck in terms of effective problem-solving. Also, such an approach many times leads to various other problems that sooner or later would return in another form.
Not being good enough to come up with effective solutions often comes at the cost of falling short of your personal or professional goals. As a problem solver, one should adapt to problem solving processes and tools that are relevant and are effective at minimising the reoccurrence of certain problems. In order to deal with certain critical and complex problems, you must be aware of appropriate problem solving tools that you can put to use accordingly. Root cause analysis is one such useful process for understanding and solving serious or difficult problems.
What is Root Cause Analysis ?
Root cause analysis is a term describing a collective of approaches, tools and techniques used to find the causes of problems. It is used to sort through surface level causes until the main root cause is uncovered. The “cause” does not always makes itself available, so solving a problem in complex work structures or organisations has to involve to follow the leads and unearth clues for troubleshooting or the possible factors when something goes wrong.
The main goal of Root cause analysis is to identify the primary cause of the problem so that you can determine what happened, how it happened and why it happened to figure out ways to reduce the likelihood of the problem reoccurrence.
Why should you identify the root cause
Even though not all problems can be said to be caused, the search for real cause is very important especially, with problems involving complex organisational or management structures, procedures, systems and people. Many times, a single cause leads to multiple effects. Just addressing some effects only fixes the problem for short-term. So, only way to solve certain problems is to find the real cause to correct them.
For instance, not able meet sales target regarding a particular product might have multiple reasons like quality issues, late deliveries, fault in a process, equipment, or it might be that product’s distributive systems aren’t up to the mark and so on. But these issues could all come down to single cause like for instance the products might not be relevant to current market standards or specifications. So, if you only treat one or two effects, the problem won’t go away.
Similarly, an employee’s procrastination might effect his work habits like being late for appointments, delayed work responses, or lack of involvement in taking initiatives. But tackling bad work habits through forced behaviours like disciplining, providing strict timeframes or deadlines doesn’t really solve it when the person’s procrastination is due to his or her lack of desire toward the task or job. So, for any problem situation, it is useful to get to the root of the problem to come up with effective solutions. Here is more to why one should consider finding the root cause.
- Taking action without identifying what factors contribute to the problem can result in wasting individual, team’s or organisational resources like time, money, effort and energy.
- Acting merely on the effect might create an impression that you have progressed in your goals as compared to identifying “root” of the problem which can sometimes be time-consuming, tedious and complicated.
- Doing something to rid ourselves of the problem sate, can often create situations where all we do is move from problem to problem.
- Arriving at temporary solutions without figuring as to “why?’ or what lead to the problem can create one or more new problems.
- One never reach a completely solved state without being aware of the root cause of the problems.
How to identify root cause to solve a problem
However, research and everyday experience show that very few of us, when confronted by complex problems, ask ourselves questions to get to the real cause of the problem. Root cause identification helps you to get to the real root causes rather than getting caught up in more surface level causes. It seeks to identify the original causes using facts, data, available information or resources. Here are some steps and tools to get to true root causes to solve a problem more easily.
Define the problem. For many, define the problem means simply to provide a written definition or statement of the problem. For instance, “there is fault in designing” may not be a good definition. It must also involve information about, how many, what are those, and how it is effecting the whole. To define is to establish boundaries, to differentiate, to describe precisely and to state the meaning of. Writing a clear problem statement which summarises the problem you face, where appropriate, who or what is involved, and when and where it occurs is the first step to find the root cause.
Analyse the problem. For instance, when you visit doctor for an ache or a pain, he/she inquires you for more information about your ailment to find out what’s causing it. Similarly, to analyse the problem you are facing, it is important to probe the possible reasons as to what caused it. Questions like, How often does the problem occur? How long the problem existed? What is driving the problem? How does the problem show itself? In what situations, the problem tends to surface? help you analyse factors that contributed to the problem. or to find the negative effects or hidden flaws.
Brainstorm the reasons for the problem. Brainstorming and coming up with reasons that lead to the cause of the problem is the next step. But reasons aren’t the same as root causes and are just the obvious things which you may have tried to solve. In some situations, you might end up with more than one reason as to why something went wrong. During this stage, you can narrow down to as many possible reasons as you can instead of just sticking to most obvious ones. Ask yourself, What sequences lead to the problem? What conditions allow the problem to occur? What other problems surround the occurrence of the main problem?
Identify the root cause of the problem. It is generally the case that in complex organisational environments, no one individual can find the cause where something has gone wrong. Information appears in bits and pieces where the relationship has to be established between various causes and elects. And solving a problem in a group setting, the focus normally shifts from problem to symptom to cause to solution and back again, often in no particular order.
There are several tools you can use to in order to evaluate root causes at every level of problem-solving no matter how big or complex a problem may be. The tool you choose will depend on how simple or complex your problem is and the amount of resources you are willing to expend on. Some common root cause analysis tools are,
This is a simple, effective tool for uncovering the root of simple or moderately difficult problems and is developed by Japanese Sakichi Toyoda. This method is based on in-depth understanding of what’s actually happening rather than brainstorming what might be happening. When a problem occurs, you get to its root cause by asking “Why” five times. However, your answers need to be grounded in facts and must account things that have actually happened and should not be mere guesses at what might have happened.
• Start with writing your problem statement.
• Ask why it is occurring and make sure your answer is grounded in facts.
• If the answer you just provided doesn’t help you identify the root of the problem, ask further “whys” in succession every time framing the question in response to the answers of your previous “whys”.
• If you identified more than one reason, repeat this process for each of the different branches until you reach a root cause for each one.
• Continue asking “why” until it produces no more useful responses or place where an appropriate counter measure becomes evident.
Note that your final why should point you to the root cause of the problem so you can take counter measures or set of actions to prevent the problem from arising again. Although this technique involves asking five whys, you may sometimes will need to ask questions fewer or more times than before you find the root cause. It also allows you to multiple lanes of inquiry if asking “why” leads to second answer.
Cause and effect is a diagram-based approach for an in-depth analysis or to think through all the possible causes of a complex or problems involving large organisational structure. This tool This tool is initially devised by Japanese Kaoru Ishikawa to ensure quality control and combines brainstorming and mind maps to explore all the possible causes as to where and why a process isn’t working. It is structure for identifying the factors that contribute to the effects observed in a given problem situation and help you track down the reasons for any malfunction, defects, imperfections, failures or variations.
• Write a well defined problem phrased as “Why” at the head portion of the diagram.
• Brainstorm other factors that may affect the problem like systems, tasks, materials, people involved, and so on and draw a line off as the back bone of the diagram and label each line.
• For each of the factors you thus considered, brainstorm possible causes that may relate to the factor and show them as shorter lines coming off as bones of the diagram.
• If a cause is large or complex, break it down into sub-causes and show these as lines coming off each cause line or can group similar ones together on the diagram.
• When you have a diagram showing all of the possible causes that you can think of, depending on its complexity, you can investigate the most likely causes further.
Whatever the contributing factors, the diagram provides guidance regarding places where to look for what might be the root cause of the problem and for what might have to be changed in order to solve it.
Pareto Analysis is great for identifying the most important root cause to deal with. Pareto Analysis uses Pareto principle also known as the “80/20 Rule” which was coined by Italian, Vilfred Pareto. According to this, chances are that 80 percent of the problems can be traced back to 20 percent of the possible causes. For instance, when we brainstorm all the possible causes, you can come up with many choices. However, out of the reasons thus generated, only 20% hold vital few or are the real causes.
The figures here aren’t set in stone and should be taken as guide to identify the causes of highest priority. This tool helps identify priority common causes, and help you decide where your resources should go in order to come up with the root causes to fix the problem effectively. This further improves productivity and profitability.
Questions for self-reflection
How often do you consider finding the root cause of problems in problem-solving?
How do you tend to define your problem – Is it precise, detailed and comprehensive?
Do you analyse real reasons behind some of your most recurring problems?
What conditions allow the problem to reoccur?
If dug deeper, what possible causes can be uncovered? Are there any other issues or events that contribute to the problem?
Do you consider all the possibilities to get to the root of the problem?
What you can do to prevent certain problems from happening again in future?
Are your answers to “why” questions grounded in facts?
Does your solution help you to prevent the problem from recurring or does it lead to new set of problems if implemented?
To sum up,
Root cause analysis is the most useful problem-solving technique to come up with efficient solutions. The key is to develop the ability to define your problem comprehensively, brainstorm various factors causing the problem, and to identify the root cause of a problem using the above tools. When working on solutions, be sure you aren’t setting yourself up for new set of problems when you implement the solution. Check whether or not you need more resources like time, skill and money, more capacity to adapt to the changes required or should you delegate or outsource in order to implement the right solutions.
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