root cause analysis

In the corporate world, if there is one constant it is that there will always be difficult challenges dropped right in front of us – often at the least opportune times. No matter what we do, what company we work for, or what our field of expertise is within the corporate world, we can always count on the fact that there will be hard problems to solve. Products not being adopted in the market like we thought they would. Issues on the manufacturing line impacting our yields. The never fun but highly prevalent issues of top line revenues not meeting forecasts. And the ever popular employee relations issues that remind you of when you used to complain to your parents that “she won’t stop touching me!” on the car ride to grandma’s and grandpa’s house.

Regardless of the issue, to be even somewhat successful in the corporate gauntlet, all of us must have gotten some form of a problem solving gene somewhere embedded in all of our DNAs. In some ways, as much as many of us aren’t thrilled about the barrage of problems we have to solve, we generally like having those problems there because we can see the issues we are trying to figure out, rally around them, bring our best ideas to the table to solve them, and feel good about what we’ve done. And in many corporate cultures, those who get promoted are those who have demonstrated the ability to regularly solve these hard problems.

But what if we actually had fewer problems to solve as a result of being better at stopping them before they actually became problems in the first place? What if as a result we had fewer fires to fight? What would we actually do with ourselves? It certainly would give us more time to focus on strategy and innovation.

Re-thinking how we apply root cause analysis

A great mentor of mine once presented an interesting assessment about how we go about solving problems in the business world. At the time, I was young and inexperienced but certainly appreciated the logic of it. As I have worked for and with more and more companies through the years, his ideas have resonated more and more in terms of practical realities. He simply said this:

“Most companies have it backwards. We spend a huge amount of time and energy solving what is going wrong when what we really should be doing is actively diagnosing what is going right.”

That certainly seemed pretty philosophical and almost Yoda-like. He explained it further:

“If we spent more time evaluating why something is going well, we can figure out what are the drivers of its success so that we can replicate that when we do new things. Unfortunately, we are all taught to be really good at root cause analysis when trying to figure out causes of problems but we don’t apply the same approach when looking at things that are working well. Or we don’t even think to look at what is going well because it isn’t the wheel that is squeaking on the car.”

It certainly is an interesting premise. Upon hearing this further explanation, I made an immediate connection to the “lessons learned” activities we often do at the end of initiatives to understand what we can apply the next time we do similar work. But my mentor was quick to say that it is quite different than that:

“What we are really talking about here is a culture within the organization versus an activity at the end of a project. As a regular part of the culture, the company needs to be focused on regularly assessing things that are working in day to day operations and actively finding ways to infuse that into other parts of the operations. That way, you are setting up your entire infrastructure in a way that promotes success because it is built on the successes around it. And then you have to find a way to reward the people who are preventing problems just as much or even more than always focusing on just rewarding the behavior for firefighting and solving problems.”

Despite the fact that this short conversation with my mentor took place over a decade ago, it left an indelible mark in my brain, so much so that I have regularly worked throughout my career to bring these approaches to reality. Even though this is not an easy concept to sell in the fast paced, often resource-deprived corporate environment these days where all of the focus is on the problem of the day, those who have adopted the philosophy have found that it completely changed their approaches to how they think about problems in the first place as well as markedly reduced the amount of problems they have to solve. In other words, the strategy isn’t to develop the best problem solving capabilities but rather to develop the best problem avoidance capabilities.

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