Problem Solving Root Cause Analysis

By Christian Green, Kepner-Tregoe

Improving problem solving has a direct effect on an organization’s bottom line. The cost of defects, damage to customer satisfaction or constant fire-fighting that can keep an organization from reaching its potential. Whether an organization is seeking Six Sigma excellence or merely struggling to reduce chaos, again and again, problem solving falls short in the same areas. Does your organization still make these common problem-solving mistakes?

1. Firefighting leaves no time for root cause analysis. The biggest barrier to getting to the root cause of problems in most organizations is fire-fighting—incidents that create problems that need to be contained and controlled now, taking precedence over all other activity. Getting to the root cause of problems is the key to stopping incident firefighting. When recurring issues go unresolved, quality issues grow and equipment failures are common. Rapid growth, short staffs, and a tendency to blame others (the supplier, logistics, the second shift, etc…) are common characteristics of organizations caught in this cycle. Finding root cause of key issues can be transformative. The first step to remediate firefighting is to adopt a common approach to problem solving that is understood across the organization.

2. Problem solvers jump to cause. Close correlation between two actions is so seductive that we tend to jump to cause. “We switched suppliers and then that happened.” While there appears to be an obvious connection, you need to clarify the mechanism of the cause. Recently one of our clients had to change materials for a component and during the testing phase the change-over revealed a defect. While everyone was sure the new material was at fault in some way, the problem-solving team followed the facts and found that the testing equipment was causing the defect, not the new material.

When problems arise, costs incur and the need to act is critical. There is a mindset that makes stopping to talk about an issue seem like a mistake. While busily trying every option to get things working again may be necessary, history has shown time and again that workarounds are usually not enough. Finding cause, testing and making a fix minimizes firefighting, builds operational stability and ultimately reduces costs.

3. Problem statements lack clarity. Vague or generalized problem statements that begin with such phrases as “Low productivity on . . .” or “Sub-standard performance by . . .” must be reworded into specific problem statements that name one object, or kind of object, and one malfunction, or kind of malfunction, for which we wish to discover and explain cause. We must describe exactly what we see, feel, hear, smell, or taste that tells us there is a deviation.

It’s always best to go to the location where the problem is occurring and observe. Closer observation will produce the relevant data to identify a specific object and deviation.

Generalized problems can lead to generalized solutions that can result in unanticipated problems. For example, resolving low productivity of a production line by adding overtime increases the cost of production. If data shows a growing scrap rate of a key component responsible for slowing production, resolving the defect in the component may improve productivity.  Working overtime instead of resolving a specific issue adds costs and ultimately reduces profit.

4. Failure to Think Beyond the Fix. After an issue is resolved, it’s a relief to move on. But the immediacy of issue resolution puts problem solvers in the right place to analyze the potential for related problems to become crisis situations and to identify patterns that indicate that a process needs deeper assessment. By paying attention to the signals coming from the environment during issue resolution, proactive measures can turn similar, potential problems into non-events. Preventive actions can take many forms—from preventative maintenance and tune-ups to specific process changes that optimize operations.  Many organizations are shifting to future looking trend analysis to identify potential problems before they reach a point where they impact operations. 

New technologies like IoT devices, embedded sensors and standardized telemetry capabilities can offer real-time insights into operations. Generating the right set of data about your processes and systems can give you the early warning needed to avoid future problems.  A key thing to remember is that all of this data and increased ability to automatically identify and respond to problems still needs to be paired with sharpened critical thinking capabilities within your work force. 

Read more about Root Cause Analysis

Structuring your Root Cause Analysis Meetings for Success

Root Cause Analysis Hacks for Easier Troubleshooting 

About Kepner-Tregoe

For over 60 years, Kepner-Tregoe has empowered thousands of companies to solve millions of problems. Kepner-Tregoe services are designed to permanently address organizational challenges with measurable results that improve quality and performance while reducing overall costs.