Eliminating Root Causes

From time to time, we all face complex problems that are both vexing and persistent. Neither the cause nor the solution is obvious to us, and we’re not willing to continue enduring the fallout from this problem.

A situation like this calls for a systematic analysis that will pinpoint one or more root causes of the problem, and offer clues or even clear directions toward a solution.

Here’s one approach that will help you in a great many problem scenarios:

Identify the Problem

There, I said it. Identifying the problem would seem to be one of the most obvious steps in finding a viable solution, but you’d be surprised how many people either skip it or flub it.

For this approach, we’re starting at the very beginning: If you want to solve a problem in your work or your life, be sure you know clearly what it is.

You should be able to explain exactly what’s going wrong, precisely why that’s not what you want, and in detail when and where this problem crops up.

Look Deeper

With the problem clearly defined, it’s research time.

In the first phase of your research, try to itemize all the major factors involved. Look at the various equipment, external considerations, internal pressures, materials, people, sites, strategies, systems, tasks, values, and other elements that are part of the situation in which the problem arises.

With each of these in mind, use the second phase of your research to assemble relevant evidence, including:

  • When, where, and how did the problem arise?
  • What, if anything, changed just before the onset of the problem?
  • Who and what feels the largest impact from the problem?

Follow the Causal Chain

This is the key part. Go through your list of major factors, and string together causes with their effects. The most important effect, obviously, is the problem itself. Working backwards from there, look for the problem’s most proximate cause(s).

For example, if parts are emerging from an assembly line with a dent, look for what’s deforming them. If your productivity is in a slump, look for what ‘s slowing you down. If people aren’t cooperating with you well enough, look for what’s weak in your orchestration and leadership.

Think along such lines as:

  • What factor leads most directly to the problem?
  • What factors allow the problem to occur?
  • What factors make any contribution – small or large – to the main problem?

The goal here is to find the root causes that start the first domino falling, rather than just finding the last domino, a temporary fix which will probably require you to perform this whole systematic analysis again.

Recognize that you’re unlikely to find a single hammer making the entire dent in your final product. Most likely, there are a number of elements, each of which is not so terrible. But together they somehow combine to create the vexing, persistent problem you’re trying to eliminate.

Analyze the Linkages

You can better understand and appreciate the linkages between elements of the situation and their possible contributions to the major problem by using such techniques as:

  • Investigating the consequences of adding or subtracting each element from the situation.
  • Tearing the situation apart to isolate the piece of the overall sequence of events that kicks off creation of the problem.
  • Flow charting the overall situation to identify the factors contributing most heavily to the problem.

Reconfigure the Situation

This systematic analysis will enable you to understand exactly which factors contribute most to the emergence of the problem you’re trying to eliminate. From there, it’s often an easy step to reconfigure the situation to improve it. This reconfiguration might include:

  • Adding more safety- or quality-control checks to catch problems in their earliest stages of development.
  • Changing the sequence so the cause of the problem – and its ability to create problems – is better insulated from the final product.
  • Upgrading whatever element is causing the problem so it becomes far less dangerous to the final product.

Of course, it’s important that you plan any such changes well enough to be sure that you’re actually making the situation better, not just exchanging one major problem for another.

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