Root Cause Analysis, How to Get to the Root of Business Problems?

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Root Cause Analysis, How to Get to the Root of Business Problems?
12 Apr 2022
5 min read
TWN Special

Post Highlight

In medicine, it is simple to distinguish between treating symptoms and curing a condition. A broken wrist, for example, is excruciatingly painful! However, pain relievers will only mask the symptoms; you will require a different treatment to allow your bones to heal properly.
What happens if you have a problem at work? Do you treat the symptoms right away, or do you pause to consider whether there is a deeper issue that requires your attention? If you only address the symptoms – what you see on the surface – the problem will almost certainly reoccur and will need to be addressed again and again. That's where
Root Cause Analysis comes in! #TWN

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In business, the question is not if problems will arise but when. It is your responsibility as a professional in a management position to put out any fires that may occur within your department. However, truly great leaders understand that success is often won by preventing problems from occurring. It is where a root cause analysis comes in handy.

In this blog post, I’ll define root cause analysis and outline a simple five-step process for conducting one effectively. Then, using a real-life example, I'll demonstrate the entire concept. Does that make sense? Let's get started!

Root Cause Analysis Definition

Let us begin with the definition. The process of determining the underlying cause of a problem is known as root cause analysis (RCA).

When the underlying cause or root of a problem is identified and understood, it is possible to fix it and avoid it in the future. (Sounds easy? It actually is more elaborate than that)

Many organizations focus on the symptoms of problems rather than the underlying causes.

It is similar to weed whacking in the garden. Yes, the current problem will be resolved shortly. However, the undesirable foliage will continue to sprout unless each weed is dug up and completely rooted out.

The key to determining the root cause of a problem is to ask "why?"

Why did the smooth-functioning equipment fail? Or,

Why did the employees make that decision?

The list goes on and on. Each "why" question should be followed by another until a root cause is identified.

Let’s Take an Example

Let's pretend your wrists have been bothering you lately. So much so that you've asked for time off work to see a doctor. The doctor informs you that you have carpal tunnel syndrome and writes you a prescription for medication.

While the medication is beneficial, it only addresses your current symptoms. If the underlying cause of your wrist pain is not addressed, the pain is likely to return in the future. You don't want this to happen, so you wonder, "Why am I in pain?" A thorough examination reveals that carpal tunnel syndrome was caused by your voracious writing habit. You've been working on your debut novel for hours every night.

All of your time at the keyboard has made your wrists hurt, causing you to miss work and visit your doctor, who prescribed medication. How does that work?

While root cause analysis processes are typically used to identify and eliminate problems, this procedure can also be used to identify success factors so that they can be replicated for long-term success.

Root Cause Analysis Process: Identify Root Causes in 5 Easy Steps

Let's look at a straightforward method for determining root causes. If you follow these five steps, you'll be able to pinpoint not only what went wrong but also why, and you'll be able to use that understanding to avoid similar problems and mistakes in the future.

1. Realize the Problem

First and foremost, you must determine what went wrong. What problem do you hope to solve by conducting a root cause analysis? Typically, there are three types of problems:

Material-Based Problems: These issues arise when a specific material item fails in some way, such as when a piece of machinery fails.

People-Based Problems: When human error is the root cause of the current problem, it is referred to as a people-based problem. A people problem will frequently lead to a material problem, such as when a piece of machinery fails due to an employee's failure to perform regular maintenance on it.

Organizational-Based Problems: A company process or policy that causes an issue is the source of an organizational problem. Continuing with our current example, maintenance on the malfunctioning piece of machinery occurred as a result of a faulty company process for assigning maintenance duties.

Determine which of these issues is to blame for the current issue and problem symptoms you're experiencing.

2. Collect a Sufficient Amount of Data

You need to collect as much data as possible as you know what the surface problem is and what symptoms it is causing.

Inquire yourself, "How long has this problem existed in our company?" and "What impact does it have on daily operations?"

At this stage, getting a variety of perspectives is beneficial. Involve your employees, the people who deal with this specific problem area daily, in the decision-making process. Their perspective will be useful as you work to identify and eliminate the root cause of a problem.

3. Identify the Associated Causal Factors

The analysis aspect of "root cause analysis" has now fully entered the picture. Start this step by creating an event timeline.

What caused this current problem?

What other problems do you have in addition to the one you're currently dealing with? Creating a timeline and asking these types of questions will allow you to start recognizing specific causal factors.

According to TapRoot, a causal factor is "an action or lack of action that caused an Incident or made the incident worse."

In essence, causal factors are the reasons you're dealing with your current issue. And, believe it or not, there are almost always multiple reasons. So, when considering causal factors, go deep. Make every effort to identify multiple ones, as long as multiples exist. You'll be much more likely to solve problems this way.

4. Draw a Conclusion

At this point in your root cause analysis, you’ve clearly outlined the problem and identified its symptoms. You’ve also collected a sufficient amount of data, utilizing the knowledge and experience of your employees to do so, and drilled down to realize each causal factor.

Now it’s time to assemble all this information together and draw a conclusion. Why did your problem occur?

You discover the answer to this question by taking each causal factor and asking “why?” until you find the root cause. Why did the machine malfunction?

Because Bob in the maintenance department didn’t perform routine maintenance. Why didn’t Bob perform his maintenance duties?

Because he fell sick on the day he was supposed to. Why wasn't the work given to a different employee?

5. Implement Any Necessary Changes

Congratulations! You've identified the true cause (or causes) of the problem at this point in the root cause analysis process. However, your work isn't finished yet. To avoid this problem in the future, you must now devise and implement a practical solution.

What can you do to ensure that this problem does not recur?

Do you require a new procedure?

How about some new hardware or software?

Perhaps you'll need to hire one or two more employees. Implement whatever solution you deem necessary right away!

Waiting only adds to the problem's complexity.

A Root Cause Analysis Example

That concludes the five-step root cause analysis procedure. Doesn't seem so bad, does it? Now that you've fully grasped the procedure, I'd like to show you another example of it in action. Here it is...

Meet Jim

Jim leads a small marketing team at a Silicon Valley startup software company. Jim has decided to invest in a full-fledged content marketing campaign that includes blogging, social media, and email marketing initiatives to truly promote their products and grow their customer base.

It's a lofty goal, but Jim is confident that his talented and dedicated team can achieve it. Things have gone really well up to this point.

However, Jim's team suffered their first setback last week. Jim secured an opportunity for his company to write about their software in a major news outlet after putting in a lot of effort networking and meeting with decision-makers at a variety of publications.

The team was ecstatic and got right to work, planning, and scheduling every detail of the project. Unfortunately, the team's main writer became ill in the middle of the project and missed a week of work. Other employees attempted to cover, but information slipped through the cracks.

The team missed blog posting deadlines, and their social media channels became stagnant. When the sick writer was finally able to return, they were so close to their deadline that he had to rush to finish it, overlooking a few key points that the publication had specifically requested.

As you might expect, the piece was rejected, and Jim's relationship with the publication is unlikely to recover.

To add salt to the wound, the company's own channels lost traction, Jim's boss is upset with him because scheduled blog updates announcing new software features were never published, and company ad dollars were wasted on Facebook ads that were not converting.

Because of the other fires, he was attempting to extinguish, Jim completely forgot to check the results on those!

A Root Cause Analysis for Jim

What could Jim have done better?

Let's look at it: First, we can identify the obvious issue: Jim's main writer became ill, delaying project progress.

Missed publishing deadlines, subpar work, and Jim's boss's wrath are all symptoms of this problem. However, we know that the root cause of this problem is not a flu virus. It's more complicated than that. So let's start gathering information.

How long has this issue existed?

We can safely say that Jim's problem has deep roots because humans have been sick since the beginning of time. We can also see that this issue has had a significant impact.

Jim has not only lost valuable contact, but he is also at risk of losing his job. His team is also in a state of disarray. They're a little jaded after putting in so much effort on various marketing campaigns only to come up short.

As we move on to figuring out what's causing Jim's problem, there are a few things we can look for right away:

Jim's team is far too small to achieve all of his lofty objectives. Things must change if one employee's illness throws his entire plan into disarray.

Jim's team also lacks some of the skill sets required to achieve his objectives. When Jim's main writer had to leave the company, no one could truly fill his shoes.

Finally, Jim clearly mismanaged the marketing campaign as a whole. He didn't leave any room for error or unforeseen events. As a result, deadlines were missed, and substandard work was submitted.

Jim’s Root Cause Analysis Results

We can begin to understand the root cause of each of these issues by digging deeper into them and asking "why?"

Why did Jim set such lofty goals for his small team? Because he genuinely wants to succeed and impress his boss. Why? Because Jim is ambitious and wants to rise through the ranks of the company. Why? Because he aspires to be a success.

Jim determines that he needs to temper his ambitions and pursue steady growth after completing this exercise with each causal factor. That's what's going to put him on the path to success.

He also realizes he needs to talk to upper management about hiring new team members with strong writing abilities.

Jim finally decides to hire a management consultant. This experience has taught him that he still has a lot to learn about the project and team management. He's determined to get the help he needs to get better. Jim, you've done a fantastic job!

Over To You

It's critical to conduct a root cause analysis whenever a problem arises. You can't truly fix problems and prevent them from happening again unless you first understand what they are and why they happen.

As a result, do yourself a favor and follow the five-step procedure outlined in this blog post. Begin by identifying the issue and gathering information about it. Then look for causal factors and inquire as to why they exist.

Finally, determine the true cause of your problem and devise a strategy to prevent it in the future. Have fun analyzing!

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