Solving Business Problems– Stop Trying to Fix Symptoms, Instead Find, Fix the Root Cause: Think Beyond Symptoms…

Solving real business problem is thinking beyond just the ‘symptom’… it’s thinking about finding, fixing the ‘root cause’ of the problem… A symptom is just one indicator that a problem exist, but knowing the ‘reason’ (or root cause) behind the symptom is the critical factor… For example; in the medical profession, a doctor must be concerned about treating the root cause of a patient’s problem rather than just the symptoms; otherwise the problem may even get worse… treating only a symptom, in most cases, does not uncovering the true root cause, which in a medical situation can be a matter of life, death.

According to Edward Hodnett; if you don’t ask the right questions, you don’t get the right answers. A question asked in the right way often points to its own answer. Asking questions is the foundation of diagnosis, and only the inquiring mind solves problems. The effectiveness of an organization is a function of how well– individuals, groups… within the organization; analyze, document, communicate, solve problems… For true problem solving an organization must understand ‘why’ a failure or problem occurred…

root LeveragePoint_ProblemSolvingMap

Uncovering the specific details of ‘why’ a problem happens is essential for knowing exactly what needs to be done to ‘fix-it’. According to Dawn Mentzer; a symptom is simply a sign that something’s wrong; it’s not, however, the actual thing that is wrong: It’s an effect. Symptoms exist in business and when things go wrong, it’s important to look beyond the effect and find the cause.

When you are faced with symptoms that are affecting the health of your business, you must do four things: 1. Acknowledge them; 2. Assess their impact; 3. Quickly step into diagnosis mode to determine their root cause; 4. Take action to treat and alleviate the root cause… Those steps take courage and an open mind because in some cases you might find that ‘you’ are part of the problem… In nearly every situation, you can do something to make a change for the better as you progress from– symptom, to root cause, to cure…

Root Cause Analysis: The primary goal of ‘root cause analysis’ (RCA) is to find a lasting solutions to business problems… Leaders who put in the effort to find the true ’cause’ will improve the business, and drive it– further, faster… and better results. The ‘root cause analysis’ approach provides a structure to ensure nothing is missed, and it’s the basis for better decision-making…

One often used technique is known as the ‘5-Whys’. 5-Whys is an iterative questioning technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem… The number ‘5’ is derived from empirical observation on the number of iterations typically required to resolve a problem…

It’s important to remember that the answer to each question then forms the basis of the next question. A disciplined approach to this principle ensures a logical flow as one digs deeper into finding the root cause… However, the questioning could be taken further to a sixth, seventh, or higher level, but five iterations of asking ‘why’, is generally sufficient to get to a root cause. The key is to encourage the trouble-shooter to avoid assumptions and logic traps, and instead trace the chain of causality in direct increments from the effect through all layers of abstraction to a root cause that still has some connection to original problem…

While the ‘5-Whys’ is a powerful tool, it has been criticized as being too basic a tool to analyze root causes to the depth that is needed to ensure that a problem is fixed. Reasons for this criticism include: Tendency for investigators to stop at symptoms rather than going on to lower-level root causes… Inability to think beyond the investigator’s current knowledge–cannot find causes that they do not already know… Lack of support to help the investigator ask the right ‘why’ questions… Results are not repeatable–different people using 5-Whys come up with different causes for the same problem… Tendency to isolate a ‘single’ root cause when several root causes might exist…

root thV9GJU8RN

In the article Most Effective Ways Leaders Solve Problems by Glenn Llopis writes: Problem solving is the essence of what leaders exist to do. As leaders, the goal is to minimize the occurrence of problems – which means you must be courageous enough to tackle them head-on.. you must be resilient in your quest to create and sustain momentum for the organization and customers you serve… Leaders who lack this insight, view problems with a linear vision – they just see the symptoms that are directly in front of them, and as such; they never see the totality of what the problem really represents…

A leader must view a problem as a strategic enabler for continuous improvement and opportunity to improve the organization... Whether a leader for a large corporation or a small business, here are several ways to approach solving problems:

  • Transparent Communication: Problem solving requires complete transparency where everyone’s concerns and points of view are freely expressed. Often it’s difficult to get to the root of the matter in a timely manner when people do not speak-up… As fundamental as communication may sound, don’t ever assume that people are comfortable sharing what they really think. Great leaders challenge their team to expose areas within the  organization that require improvement…
  • Break Down Silos: Transparency requires the break down of silos, and the enabling of a boundary-less organization whose culture is focused on a healthier whole. Organizational silos are the root cause of most workplace problems and are why many of them never get resolved… Breaking down silos is less about corporate politicking and more about making the organization stronger…
  • Open-minded People: Breaking down silos and communication barriers requires people to be open-minded… Problem solving is about people working together to make the organization and the people it serves better. Therefore, if you are stuck working with people who are closed-minded, effective problem solving becomes a long and winding road of misery…
  • Solid Foundational Strategy: Never shoot from the hip when problem solving. Avoid guessing. Take enough time to step back and assess the situation and the opportunities that each problem represents… Problem solving is the greatest enabler for growth and opportunity…

In the article Real Root Causes for Problems Your Company Is Facing by Andy Birol writes: All organizations have problems; just ask any CEO the question: What keeps you up at night? The likely answer is: Worry that a customer, employee, vendor or investor might lose confidence and leave… But when you probe deeper with a few more questions, you will probably find that the CEO’s first response is just stating a symptom, where a symptom is an obvious or acute issue, which anyone can see and everyone can agree on.

But rarely are symptoms the problems, whereas root causes are the fundamental reasons behind business challenges… Symptoms are often mistaken for root causes. Companies are notoriously guilty for dwelling on symptoms, while ignoring root causes. Don’t fall into this trap, or your root causes can result in more and greater problems… So, the key trait of a successful business is not to confuse– symptoms with basic root causes, for example:

  • Symptom: Company sales are not growing: Root cause: There’s a mismatch between what the company sells and what the customers want to buy…
  • Symptom: Underperforming staff: Root cause: The company delegates tasks but not the responsibility or authority to get the job done…
  • Symptom: Gross margins, profit margins are shrinking: Root cause: The customers’ perception of the value of the company’s products is declining…
  • Symptom: Unmotivated, younger generation/entry level labor pool: Root cause: The company fails to provide an engaging working environment…

The purpose of ‘root cause analysis’ is simple; to determine the underlying reason or reasons for a problem, and to eliminate those reasons. According to Lisa Jo Rudy; the process, however, is not quite as simple. There are multiple tools and multiple steps along the road to analyzing a root cause. No matter which tool you choose, you’ll go through the same basic steps: Define the problem… Determine the reasons for the problem… Determine the underlying conditions that give rise to the reason for the problem… Design a solution for the problem… Implement the solution… Evaluate the success of  the solution…

root thDGVNA05T

According to Alaric Tan, Kepner-Tregoe; a holistic approach to problem solving is to study the situation from two angles, before deciding which is more suitable, which allows you to make more informed decisions about where to focus your efforts and resources… Overly focusing on actions that are adaptive without investing any resources into the corrective actions may result in a similar issue recurring again and again (much like the doctor who treats symptoms instead of the actual illness).

However, by placing too much emphasis on the corrective actions (i.e., the search for root cause) could result in a loss of revenue and business, such as; losing a customer to a competitor due to unfulfilled commitments… Hence, you might consider a two-pronged approach which allows the possibility of handling both customer and organizational needs, while giving more time to find and fix the root cause, for example:

  • Corrective action: Focus on finding the ‘root cause’ of the problem. Once the root cause is found, the next course of action is to find ways to correct or fix it.
  • Adaptive action: Focus on the harmful effects of the problem, and take the adaptive actions that can address them. These are often referred to as stop-gap measures or workarounds.

Finding the ‘root cause’ is not a new concept, it’s well-known in most organizations– and the basic approach is– if you can define/find the ‘real’ problem (i.e., not just symptoms), then you can usually fix it… However, finding/fixing the real problem, especially in the complex systems of many business, is not an easy matter… and, even when the problem is ‘found’ and ‘fixed’, other question still remain, for example; moving beyond the– finger-pointing, blame-making… all the distractions that are a direct consequence of problem solving.

However, many organizations must learn to embrace challenges, accept responsible as a team, and move forward to build a sustainable business… According to Dwayne Spradlin; organizations must become better at asking the right questions so that they tackle the right problems… The rigor with which a problem is defined is a critical factor in finding a suitable solution; moreover, all problems are not of equal status– some are more critical than others…

Hence, organizations must be more proficient at ‘problem solving’, which means– being able to distinguish between a problem and a symptom of a problem, applying the rigor of a ‘root cause’ analysis, and articulate the solution– clearly, concisely…