Sustainable Improvement through Root Cause Analysis (Part 4)

In the past installments of this topic, we discussed creating sustainable performance improvements in organizations utilizing the Identify-Prioritize-Analyze-Resolve framework. The last two installments dealt with the “Identify” and “Prioritize”. In this installment we will discuss the “Analyze” part of the framework.

Once the drivers of performance improvement are identified and prioritized based on their impact, it is important to analyze them further in order to get to their root causes.  The following are some analysis tools that have proven effective:

  1. Experienced personnel: Experienced personnel are extremely valuable when it comes to trying to dig into the root cause of problems affecting performance.  They can usually give a detailed account of how processes and procedures evolved over time and why some rules were instated or rescinded.  Knowing how the process evolved typically shows where problems originated and how they were patched up in the past.
  2. Five Why’s: This is one of the most effective techniques used to “drill down” to the root cause of problems impacting performance. The goal here is to prevent dealing with the symptoms of a problem rather than the problem itself. Below is an example of the five-whys:

Manager:          Why was the wrong part shipped to the customer? {1st why}

Clerk:                  The warehouse picked the part

Manager:          Why? {2nd why}

Clerk:                  The wrong part number was put into the system

Manager:          Why? {3rd why}

Clerk:                  A human error by the order processing clerk when the data was entered

Manager:          Why was the order processing clerk entering data for an order that was received electronically? {4th why}

Clerk:                  Because we are unable to import the web orders into our sales tracking software

Manager:          Why? {5th why}

Clerk:                  Well, because we never asked IT to build the interface

Does the above example sound too simple and straight forward? You’d be surprised at how many managers stop at the second why and want to punish the data entry person for entering the wrong part number.

Most time you don’t have to drill five levels deep. In my experience, it is frequently possible to dig to the root cause by asking why 3 to 4 times.

3. Fishbone Diagram:In some complex process problems may have multiple causes. In this case it may be necessary to use a formal method to understand the underlying causes. Fishbone Diagrams are extremely valuable tools, not only to deal with current problems, but also to identify potential shortfalls that can cause problems later. The following steps can be used to create a Fishbone Diagram:

  • Assemble a focus group consisting of personnel that have experience with the

    Ishikawa Fishbone Diagram

    process that need to be analyzed.

  • Brain storm possible problems that could negatively affect the performance of the process, and categorize them into one of the 6M’s in the fishbone diagram. The 6M’s are Man, Material, Methods, Machinery, Mother Nature, and Measurement. For more details see Ishikawa Diagrams.
  • Prioritize all the possible causes (see the earlier installment on prioritization)
  • Use the 5 Whys to drill down to the root causes of high priority items

In many cases, multiple causes can be identified for the same problems and they have to be prioritized. This is why the Identify-Prioritize-Analyze-Resolve framework has a feedback loop from Analyze to Prioritize.

The above methods are a few of many ways to drill down to the root cause of problems. If applied correctly, these methods can be extremely helpful in resolving problems and preventing recurrence, an end that creates sustainable improvement.

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