Why it may be better NOT to address root cause of a problem

Operational Excellence methodologies, IT Service Management best practices and business wisdom all agree that letting problems go unresolved in your organization can lead to inefficient use of resources, process inconsistencies and in some cases critical business impacting incidents.  Many business leaders and managers interpret this to mean that all problems are bad and it is critical root causes be identified and fixed.  While this perspective has merit, the situation is rarely as simple as black & white.

Problems are like opportunities in that there will always be more of them than the organization can feasibly address. Problems are also like opportunities in that not all of them should be addressed. Sometimes, for reasons of cost, risk, benefits and other opportunities, it is necessary (or desirable) to leave the root causes of some problems unresolved to focus on other things.  Here are 4 reasons why it may be better NOT to address the root cause of a problem:

1. The basic ROI just isn’t there.  It is sometimes costlier to fix a root-cause than to live with the problem.  This may be because the problem isn’t very impactful to begin with or the fix is quite expensive.  It could also be because the underlying situation is expected to change in the future so the benefits to be gained from implementing the fix have a short lifespan.

2. It may not be a recurring issue.  All problems have a risk profile which includes the likelihood that the problem will happen again and the impact if it does occur.  The fact that an incident happened in the first place or a series of factors were present in the environment to create a situation where someone took notice is a strong indication that a problem indeed exists.  Just because something happens once, does not mean it will happen again.  Applying risk management techniques can help differentiate one-time-events from recurring problems that really are critical to address

3. The fix may cause unintended consequences.  Problems don’t exist in isolation – they are part of the broader environment and frequently involve a complex web of cause-and-effect relationships.  Depending on the confidence in the root-cause that was identified and the organization’s understanding of the whole environment, implementing a fix could cause bigger problems than the original one it intended to solve.

4. Opportunity cost is greater than the benefit. Organizations have limited time and resources and always have choices on how to best use them.  The decision on whether to address a specific root-cause can’t be taken in isolation – it must be treated as an investment and considered in the context of the greater portfolio of investment options.  Once the low hanging fruit has been harvested, it may be better to leave some root causes unresolved and focus on other opportunities.

The guidance of best practices and business wisdom are correct that letting problems go unresolved can lead to future impacts, but so can fixing them.  The key is to take a step back from the individual problem and look at the bigger picture of the situation to apply objective judgement to determining whether that specific problem should be fixed. By doing so, you will find that many root-causes are better left un-addressed and instead focus the organization’s resources on opportunities with greater value potential.

Kepner-Tregoe has been helping companies improve their problem-management processes for over 60 years through a combination of training, process best-practices and consulting.  The experts at KT understand that each problem is part of your company’s bigger picture and can help you implement the skills, decision-making criteria and problem-solving processes to get the most value from your problem-management investments.

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