Finding the Root Cause

We understand that, all things being equal, the same causes always lead to the same effects. But often we fail to act on this knowledge. We tell ourselves that this time is different. We convince ourselves that a particular problem was an aberration. We rationalize, and we procrastinate. And we fail to address the cause. The extent to which we fail to address the causes is the extent to which the effects will return again and again.

Addressing causes means much more than pointing fingers or casting blame. Certainly, there are times when an employee really messes up. But such situations are more rare than we often believe. And even when employee error occurs, that is seldom the root cause.

The root cause is the most basic or fundamental source of an undesirable effect. It is the action or inaction that starts a chain of events resulting in the symptom of a bottleneck.

Often, when faced with the symptoms of a bottleneck, we look for a quick solution. This is understandable. We want the pain to go away. We want to extinguish the fire. Unfortunately, that is all we do. We make the pain go away, but the cause remains. And the pain will return sooner or later.

If we want to find the root cause, we can’t be content with the first thoughts or explanations that we have. We must dig deeper. We must probe and play detective.

Consider a common experience among painting contractors—running short of paint at the end of a job. If we ask why this happens, a typical answer is that insufficient paint was ordered. This is certainly true, buy why was insufficient paint ordered?

If we stop with our first thought, our inclination will be to simply order more paint. But how much more? And should we do this on every job? If we start ordering extra paint for every job, we could see our material costs explode. And that’s not good either, particularly if we don’t need the paint. We will have simply exchanged one problem for another.

But if we probe deeper, we can find a better solution. Continuing with the above example, let us assume that you find that the amount of paint ordered matches the quantity estimated. But that amount is sometimes insufficient. We now have a clue for further investigation. Does the material shortage occur on certain types of jobs, such as interiors or exteriors, with greater frequency? Is the shortage occurring with a particular product more than others? Questions such as these can help
us identify trends, and trends can lead us to the root cause.

Suppose we find that the vast majority of our shortages occur with exterior trim paint. We now know to look at the spread rates we are using for calculating material needs, as well as the application methods of our painters. If we are calculating 400 square feet per gallon, but are painters are applying the product at the rate of 300 square feet per gallon, we have a discrepancy that needs to be addressed.

By probing deeper and finding the root cause, we are able to find a solution that eliminates or greatly reduces the problem forever. And it does so without creating a new problem in the process.

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