Quick Remedies or Definitive Solutions, What is your Choice?
Professionals Use Root Cause Analysis!
When people who are responsible for the smooth running of their systems and processes are too busy to identify the true causes of problems, they usually apply pressure to the wound and move on. When it’s a small problem, we call this a "Band-Aid" and when it’s a significant problem, we say we’re "stopping the bleeding" with a tourniquet. In another overused metaphor, we say we’re too busy "fighting fires" to fix our problems. We used to say we were too busy to find the "guy with the matches."
Postponing corrective action on the "root cause" is habit forming. In the press of daily routines, busy managers and engineers often find themselves putting off the treatment of the core problems, so they can keep treating symptoms, so the business can keep running and the payroll can be met. There’s no point in whining about that—it’s a fact of life, usually necessary to the health of the enterprise. The second factor that contributes to delayed action on core problems is that problems are usually acceptable. There’s no point arguing that they’re not acceptable— if they were not acceptable, they would not occur, or would occur much less often.
There are actually some industries where problems are truly unacceptable, as they are in the commercial nuclear power industry, medicine, and aircraft manufacturing. Companies in these fields have well-established standards, specifications, systems, and organizations, and are receiving heavy-handed help from government and other sources in decreasing the likelihood of accidents. In spite of everything that groups of intelligent and motivated people can do—airplanes crash, reactor cores melt down, and the wrong limbs are amputated.
Can you imagine either a reward so great or a punishment so severe that they can prevent mistakes and problems?
For most of us it’s cost that ultimately drives us to inject some fix money.
And there’s usually a delay between causes and effects. We need to develop special programs such as "Root Cause Analysis" to help remind us that, for example, the preventive maintenance program we put off last year may be linked to the high number of product rejections we’re experiencing this spring.
For one reason or another, sometimes at the urging of dissatisfied customers, sometimes because of dissatisfaction inside the organization, the problems eventually become annoying enough to take a higher priority in management staff discussions.
Who should we blame?
What happens next is important. Insecure managers with convenient memories have a long history of forgetting who cut the training budget, the plant modernization plan, and the health insurance package, and then using the very pride with which they could be building winning organizations as leverage to spread guilt. They siphon responsibility away from themselves through blame.
In previous years, I have highlighted the folly of being a "one dimensional manager" that is, focusing only on money, instead of on the causes of long term business success. The August 1998 issue of "Industry Week" reported that the 100 best managed companies invest more than their competitors in employee training and on industry health plans. They spend heavily on research, plant modernization, and environmental and safety concerns. They don’t meet government standards in these areas; they exceed them by a long shot.
Then these managers ask for superior financial performance, and they get it. They’re not immune to bad quarters or disappointing years—but they stay the course and rebound from both internal and market problems better and quicker. The Industry Week top 100 companies are leading their competitors in profit margins, leverage, sales turnover, inventory turnover, return on assets and return on equity. They are better in total revenues, earnings per share and profit growth.
The 1980’s (the decade of quality) required the best of managers to take a leap of faith that taking good care of customers was not an expense, it was a powerful competitive strategy. When the results arrived, they exceeded everyone’s expectations.
Fortunately, the evidence is piling up that it is every bit as sensible to take good care of your employees.