Root cause analysis is a skill that can be used in many different ways. Recently, I worked with a team on employee engagement. Management assigned us to plan some social feel-good activities so that employees would be happier in the workplace. Sure, we could plan something to bring a little cheer to their day. But did lack of social interaction have anything to do with why employee engagement was perceived to be low? Or was this notion just a good tale management was telling so it would appear they were acting on an issue?
How many times have we assigned a task or been assigned a task that was designed to fix a situation we really did not understand? How common is it that we’re tasked with treating the symptoms instead of the root cause of the issue?
Employee engagement, by definition, aims to have employees so enthused about their work that they want to do things that will impact the company in a positive way. I do not recall ever seeing an analysis of employee engagement that cited wanting more time socializing with other employees as a motive for better work performance.
Before planning any social events, our team went back to management and requested the survey data that indicated employee engagement was low. A little digging into the analysis showed that most of the low scores in the broad category of employee engagement centered on lack of collaboration among employees, and divisions and lack of flexibility when sharing resources with another division. This included the sharing of talent and expertise, equipment or technology licenses for select programs, and any surpluses in one category to compensate for deficits in another category.
Wanting better collaboration with other employees is very different from wanting social interaction. Collaborative efforts generally start with management making sure there aren’t any policy structures or work culture norms creating barriers to collaboration. Management also assesses whether meaningful incentives are available for those who do collaborate. But it doesn’t matter what you offer in incentives if you don’t remove the barriers.
In this situation, there was a strong culture of protecting one’s own turf. Recognition was provided to individual division leaders, which hindered divisions from wanting to work together. There was a constant battle for which division would receive recognition and rewards for their work; division leaders simply did not want to share rewards. In addition, sharing resources among divisions required specific approval, which was not granted without mountains of paperwork in requests and justifications. Budget changes were not easy to make. All of this conspired against effective collaboration.
With management approval, our committee changed our charge to include strategies for enhancing collaboration. We took a three-pronged approach to our newly revised task. First, we identified the policy constraints and cultural norms that discouraged collaboration and provided suggestions on how to change them to be more collaboration-friendly. Second, we identified the policy constraints that kept managers from being flexible in managing their budgets and provided suggestions that increase opportunities for improved resource-sharing. Third, we did plan one end-of-day social event to help build the type of social interaction that can lead to collaborative networks.
The impact of our work started a cultural shift in how everyone worked together. Had we not examined the situation and drilled down to the root cause, we would not have been able to do this. A little extra time and effort on the front end of our work yielded sustainable improvements in the way we did business. This meant we didn’t have to continuously address the superficial issues and expend time and energy skirting the real problem. We dealt with the core issue and were then able to move forward. We fixed what was broken rather than trying to pretend the break wasn’t there.
So, while the initial story may sound good, make sure you fully understand the real story in whatever challenge you’re facing. Take the time to investigate the real problem before trying to identify solutions. This process is called root cause analysis and it saves you time, energy, and money.
For every effect there is a root cause. Find and address the root cause rather than try to fix the effect, as there is no end to the latter. —Unknown
Root Cause Analysis
Like all processes, there are specific steps to conducting a root cause analysis. While I eluded to them in my example, here they are laid out in order with simplified descriptions. Remember, your objective is to determine the primary barrier (root cause) that is preventing you from transitioning from your current situation to your desired situation.
- Define the Problem. Make sure you aren’t just putting a band-aid on a symptom. Dig down to identify the underlying foundational issue that is creating the easier to spot reactionary issues.
- Gather Information. Include representatives from every group that has experienced or is familiar with the problem. Get as many different perspectives as possible as to the effects of the problem. Develop a clear understanding of what the problem is everything that relates to it.
- Brainstorm Possible Causes of the Problem. Using the information you’ve gathered, generate all the possible reasons that the problem might exist.
- Select the Root Cause. This is where you connect the dots. Look at the information you gathered on effects and your list of possible causes. Which of your possible causes connect only to one effect? Continue working through your list until you get to the cause that connects to all of the effects. This is the root cause of everything else. This is what you need to address.
- Take Action. Now that you know exactly what the root cause is to your problem, you can prepare action steps that will address and solve the problem.
Putting It All Together
Think of a plant. If any of its roots become unhealthy you will begin to see the effects in the stem, leaves, and petals. It won’t matter how much tender loving care you dedicate to the stem, leaves, and petals, their health will not improve until you address the issue in the roots and bring them back to health. The same is true for businesses. If the foundational elements of your business, its roots, aren’t healthy there will be signs of weakness in other parts of the business. Unless you investigate the foundational issues or root causes of the problem, your business will not thrive in a sustainable manner.
How often do you take the time to explore the cause of a problem before trying to solve it? Do you instantly go into reactive mode? Unless it is a life-threatening emergency situation, I challenge you to pause instead of immediately moving on to the next problem that comes your way. I challenge you to take the time to make sure you understand what is at the root cause of the situation. I challenge you to pursue a solution that will stand the test of time and not just be a temporary fix that will need to be addressed again in the future.
Revised February 2022. Originally published under The OD Pro in November 2019.