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Root Cause Analysis: How You Can Tell If a Problem Is Operational or Personal

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In our company—and I’m sure many others— problems arise where it seems impossible to determine whether the cause was operational or personal.

Is there a way we can determine what really caused the problem so we can fix it?

Many of the situations we see happening in a corporate setting are issues and not causes. Issues are at the forefront because they are the effects that show themselves day to day. If these issues are addressed, it does not mean they will not recur. The reason: The cause was never identified, only the symptoms.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. You will need to deep dive to clearly identify the cause of a certain event, particularly those that are not as constructive as expected.

This means an intervention and performing root cause analysis using a specific model. Some of the more common models are the Pareto Principle, 5 Whys, and the Fishbone/ Ishikawa Diagram.

Pareto Principle
This basically states that 80% of the impact is brought about by 20% of all possible factors.

Focus on the variables that, when addressed, would avoid the larger impact on a target. Discuss all the concerns and then quantify the impact as well as the timeliness of the impact. Frequency of occurrence can also be included. Taken collectively, these factors can identify which concern is central.

5 Whys
This model is a process of elimination that starts with the question ‘Why?.’ Why did something happen? Once you have answered that, ask another ‘Why?’ until the fifth question is reached.

As each stage is reached, the possible causes will be narrowed down. After the fifth stage, the real core issue should be revealed.

The Ishikawa model uses the diagram of a fish. The head represents the challenging situation, and the fishbone represents possible causes. There are two main cause components: the operations side and the manpower/ human factor side.

Identify which variable among the main components is the most likely core issue of a challenging situation. You must be aware of the dynamics of the internal stages per variable. Following is a more detailed discussion of the variables of each component.

Operational Variables
This covers machines, methods, and materials. ‘Machines’ means the presence or absence of this physical asset. Also, the state or condition of the physical asset in relation to its depreciation and usability.

‘Methods’ means policies or processes that need to be followed. Are they clear and coherent? Are they updated? Are they still responsive?

It is important to align the processes of the different departments: Is there a connection so that one process dovetails into another, maybe a process of another department?

In many cases, managers create their own processes without considering other departments. This leads to confusion, bottlenecks, and misalignment.

‘Materials’ relates to supporting items such as an inventory of supplies, availability of consumable items as well as sourcing these items for replenishment.

An issue may arise, for example, when a supplier is substituted for one who is not able to provide the same quality of materials as before. This could lead to substandard resources.

From the above, you can see how operational considerations can impact performance quality and productivity output and, perhaps, lead to errors in work execution.

This covers Knowledge, Motivation, Skills and Execution. ‘Knowledge’ relates to training intervention (e.g., seminars, conventions, work-withs) as well as their appropriateness and applicability to the level of the individual.

There is a compelling requirement in this area that involves testing or validating the acquired knowledge from the intervention through exams or practical testing.

‘Motivation’ deals with the attitude (way of thinking) and emotions (way of feeling) that influence the behavior of an employee.

This means understanding the character of a person, which includes beliefs based on perspectives or the person’s background, and how they impact the final decision.

‘Skills and Execution’ covers the application of knowledge on the work engagement and the outcome. So ‘Skills’ would include things like dexterity, flexibility, and comprehension. ‘Execution’ focuses on the implementation of expected quality of effort so that the desired performance level can be achieved.

This mostly encompasses external factors, more specifically inevitable ones. Since these factors are larger in scope and related to nature, their impact will involve a gamut of scenarios. So there must be an awareness, understanding, internalization, and adaptability of environmental changes.

Given all the above, when a challenging situation arises, begin finding the root cause by:
1. Asking the question: What changed in the environment? If the answer is “nothing” or “not significant,” then

2. Look at the operational issues (machines, materials, methods). If again the answer is insignificant, then

3. Focus on Manpower. Zero in on attitude, interaction With others, and motivation and mindset.

Print ed: 07/13


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