Industryweek 7242 Brain Puzzle Iw

Is Your Company Solving the Right Problems?

July 1, 2014
If you want to solve problems in your business and see positive results, then start asking the right questions.

How many times have you and your colleagues identified a business critical problem, conducted intense brainstorming sessions, developed a seemingly flawless improvement strategy, and gone forth to execute the plan -- only to realize that productivity continued to decline, customer service performance remained stagnate and financial gains were miniscule, at best?

All too often, initiatives like these have a crippling impact on employee morale and customer satisfaction, and reduce confidence in the ability of company leaders to effectively solve critical problems.

I had a client who had long been “solving” a business issue that was costing the organization nearly $200,000 a year. A member of its executive team brought me into the company to eliminate the problem. As I queried the leadership team and line managers about the issue and their attempts to solve it, I was given elaborate diagrams, creative explanations and mounds of data collection that were used to help them arrive at many dead-in solutions.

Why? Because they were not solving the right problem. In quality terms, their root cause analysis (RCA) process was flawed.

As I continued to probe different people within the organization, I soon discovered that no two answers to one question were the same. This was true even among peers within the targeted department.

I found this quite alarming to say the least; however, it was now clear why they could not solve the problem: They did not know what problem they were trying to resolve.

Without being able to clearly identify what the true business issue was, they could not create an effective strategy to solve it. The true business issue is commonly referred to as the root cause, and without it, problem solving becomes a game of chance.

If you’re like me, you’re thinking “this is just common sense,” and it is. Regardless, this scenario is not uncommon in the business world. Much to the chagrin of business leaders and process experts alike, many improvement efforts fail due to solutions being applied to ancillary causes as opposed to the root cause of the problem.

The Challenge of Root Cause Identification

In some cases, root cause identification is obvious. But in most cases, problems are embedded into the fabric of the organization and are shielded behind the veil of “this is how we have always done things,” making problems hard to identify and even harder to unravel and troubleshoot.

Before I get too deep into this topic, I want to ensure you have a thorough understanding of what RCA is. I found the best description from Rooney and Heuvel (Quality Press, 2004). They describe root cause analysis as encompassing four parts:

  1. Identifying specific underlying issues
  2. Can reasonably be identified using process improvement tools and methodologies
  3. Management has control to influence
  4. Can generate effective recommendations to prevent reoccurrences

Now, you may be thinking, “Of course we do that,” but allow me to explain. Getting to specific causes is the key to solving business critical issues, and it is seldom a simple process.

Stopping Short of the Root Cause

Identifying specific underlying issues -- Stopping at ‘operator error’ is not specific enough to be considered a root cause. The next question should be, “Why did the ‘operator error’ occur?”

Too often, we stop short of arriving to the root cause, only to have the issue occur again. The best way to determine if you have uncovered a root cause is to develop experiments to test for measureable process improvements, typically in the form of an increased or reduce key process indicator. This is done by comparing the pre-experiment metrics against the post-experiment metrics. If sustained improvements are observed, you have a win! If not, return to your list of root causes and start the experimentation again.

Can reasonably be identified -- Searching for a root cause to a business issue should not send you or your improvement team on a wild goose chase. If a more robust process, like PDCA or Six Sigma, is needed to determine a root cause, then escalate the issue to company executives to secure a project sponsor and establish a project to solve the problem.

The ‘Plan’ phase of PDCA and the ‘D.M.A’ phases of the Six Sigma processes can be instrumental in uncovering hidden root causes to your business issues. Regardless of the problem-solving method used, your root cause identification process must remain cost beneficial to the organization.

Management has control to influence -- If management cannot influence the factors that produced the root cause, then the problem is going to resurface. Management cannot influence ‘severe weather’; however, we can generate solutions to a blown transformer that caused a plant power outage during a wind storm. Oh, and did we mention that the transformer wiring was faulty prior to the wind storm… 

Can generate effective recommendations to prevent reoccurrences -- Solutions must align directly with the root cause. If the recommendation to the problem is to ‘clarify the policy to the workforce,’ chances are a specific root cause has not been identified, and you can expect to see the problem again.

Sounds logical, straightforward and simple, right? In reality, a lot of companies have failed to get to this point. Process improvement, which includes root cause analysis, is an assumed job responsibility of company employees in the eyes of leadership. However, this is not always the reality. Employees and team members have a growing list of responsibilities, deadlines and obligations, so if the process is not abhorrently broken, process improvement takes a backseat to the more pressing workplace fires of the day.  

As a company executive, you would think that solving problems would intrigue employees and facilitate root cause identification, correct? Not always! In many cases, the ‘this is how we have always done it’ or ‘put a Band-Aid on the issue until we can get to it’ ideology reigns supreme.

This is not a malicious response from disgruntled employees; rather, it is a natural response to the growing demands placed on the remaining team members of lean organizations. The fact remains that proper root cause analysis takes time, and without clear instruction on how to accomplish this task in a time-sensitive manner, it will take a back seat to more pressing business needs.

So, for your fast-paced work environment, let me give you four steps to conducting root cause analysis in your department or company:

  1. Data Collection
  2. Causal Factor Charting
  3. Root Cause Identification
  4. Recommendation generation and implementation

*Rooney and Heuvel, Quality Press 2004

In the case study mentioned at the beginning of this article, I joined a cross-functional team of front line, middle and senior managers to begin our root cause investigations with the production workers.

Together, management and workers utilized an Ishikawa (cause and effect) diagram to brainstorm ideas and arrive at three root causes associated with the problem. From there we developed a series of experiments by using statistical process analysis to find the most optimal combination of factors to eliminate the problem.

After two months, the company was able to boast of a $200,000 cost savings and 10% time reduction in the production of one of its premium products. Most importantly, the process is still sustainable today. That’s a business win!

If you want to solve problems in your business and see positive results, then start asking the right questions.

Problem solving becomes easier once everyone is clear on what problem is hindering progress. You have to turn into an investigator; the problems are seldom obvious. Once this conundrum has been solved, you can effectively use the brainpower within your organization to drive sustainable improvements for financial growth.

Rhonda Garrett is the president of the Vaski Group LLC, a performance improvement and strategy-based consulting firm. She has numerous years of industry experience, and her ability to identify, evaluate, and close efficiency gaps has led to multimillion dollar savings for small firms and Fortune 200 companies, alike. She holds a master's of engineering management degree with a certificate in project management from Washington University in St. Louis. Contact Information: 314-482-4401, [email protected]

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