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Finding Root Cause Isn’t Enough

By Alaric Tan, Kepner-Tregoe

Picture this scenario. You just arrived at your desk after a nice lunch at the café. You pick up the phone as it rings and are greeted with a huge sigh from your operations team lead. A problem with one of your products happened while you were at lunch.

You make your way down to the quality control department for a crisis management meeting with the team to gather details and sort the whole thing out. Apparently the black safety shoes are coming off the production line with streaks of grey. The obvious thing to do, for most people, would be to stop production and focus on finding the root cause of the problem. While that is a perfectly legitimate course of action, it may not be the best one. What if the search for the root cause takes too long and affects your delivery commitment to the customer? How else can you manage this situation?

We sometimes narrow our options too early without exploring alternative approaches. How do you work through all of the complexity while managing production and client deadlines? Is there an efficient and structured way to approach this? The answer is an indisputable, yes.

Take a look at the following diagram and use it as a thought trigger to help expand your options. A holistic approach to the situation is to study the situation from two angles before deciding which is more suitable. You may even want to consider a two-pronged approach which allows the possibility of handling current client and organizational needs whilst giving you more time to identify and fix root cause.

  1. Corrective Action –Focus on finding the root cause of the problem. Once the root cause has been found, the next course of action is to find ways to correct or fix it. This can be accomplished with a variety of root-cause analysis approaches such as Kepner-Tregoe Problem Analysis.
  2. Adaptive Action –Focus on the various effects of the problem as well as the adaptive actions that can address them. These are often referred to as stop-gap measures or workarounds. For example, one of the effects of the black shoe scenario is that shoes with grey streaks may have to be scrapped. Possible adaptive actions to deal with this include selling them off cheaper, reworking the rejects by camouflaging the streaks, or developing another product line with the streaks as part of the design, etc.

Analyzing the situation this way 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 patient who treats symptoms instead of the actual illness). However, by placing too much emphasis on the corrective actions (the search for root cause) could result in a loss of revenue and business such as losing a client to a competitor due to unfulfilled delivery commitments.

This is a common approach borrowed from the IT support industry where there are dedicated teams to manage each aspect. The search for root cause is given to the problem management department. In the meantime, there is an incident management team whose sole purpose is to develop workarounds to ensure that IT service is restored as quickly as possible. Once the workaround is developed, there is less time pressure for the teams to come up with the root cause. This same concept, applied to manufacturing engineering, can achieve the same effect.

Bear in mind, I am advocating that action be taken in both sides only if this helps you plan your resolution. If it’s practical and feasible then do it, if not, then prioritize resources and carry out either an adaptive or corrective action.

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