by Rob Zell

I recently prepped for and took the exam to receive an SPHR (Senior Professional in Human Resources) certification. Much of the background called for HR professionals performing a needs analysis prior to taking action. Strategically this makes plenty of sense: Why embark on a plan of action before assessing the environment and the issues at hand? The problem is, after 18 plus years in the field of education and training, I have become a first responder – a triage expert – focused on stopping the bleeding at all costs and then doing a deeper dive to get to the true root cause.

Root cause analysis is a great idea in theory; it’s just difficult to embrace in practice. The demands of the business sometimes call for immediate action rather than the meticulous exploration of root cause. In order to bring the most value to the business, we have to avoid the tendency to apply stop gap measures. We should look to discover the root causes of issues in order to drive efficiency and prevent waste.

Root Cause Analysis (RCA) at its most basic level is the process of determining the true cause of a problem rather than just fixing the symptoms. While researching the topic, I found this great example of dealing with an oil leak on a shop floor. I love the way it clearly spells out the process of discovering the true issue behind the spot and allows the manager to come to a true solution.

There are plenty of methods for discovering root cause. One popular method, illustrated by the oil spot, is Five Whys. Used in various process improvement models, this technique encourages managers and team members to consistently ask “why” when problem solving. The root cause is discovered when the question no longer leads to a cause. It may take more or less than five questions to arrive at the answer but the process is good for determining where action needs to be taken.

A visual way to approach root cause is the use of an Ishikawa Diagram or fishbone diagram. I like this technique for its visual nature and the structure it provides when approaching total quality. Other approaches might include a force field diagram in which a team might brainstorm factors that are contributing to success and factors that are hindering performance. Success factors can be formalized, communicated and institutionalized while obstacles can be dealt with in a methodical manner. The force field is a very versatile tool and is one of my favorites for engaging a team in decision making.

Unfortunately, in the “real world” we often feel pressure to fix the issue immediately. In the case of an oil spill on the shop floor, regardless of the root cause, the oil must be cleaned up. It may have to be cleaned up several days in a row, leading to lost time on the job and the risk of workplace accidents (if someone slips before it is cleaned). The key is to keep a focus on root cause without making it exclusive of immediate response. Often we find ourselves dealing with leaders who think in black and white versus the various shades of gray that exist.

A strong leader knows how to balance the immediate with the long term. A strong leader, whether they are the formal authority or the leader of a project team, knows how to ask the right questions to get to the root cause while still coping with the urgency, or perceived urgency, of the situation. In order to acquire the best possible information, consider the following:

  1. Assume good intentions. It is hard to imagine that your employees choose actions that undermine your business for the sake of undermining the business. Chances are they make those decisions because of pressures or demands that drive them to make the decision that is “the lesser of two evils.” My favorite example comes from my restaurant experience. A server rushes to the ice machine and rather than using the scoop, plunges the glass into the ice bin and breaks the glass. Of course, now the ice bin must be emptied, causing a disruption in the flow of business and an emergency to purchase ice for guests. Why did the server do this? Following our root cause process, we discover that the server had been assigned multiple tables simultaneously. The expectation is that drinks arrive at tables within two minutes and unsure of how to ask for help, the server was rushing to get drink orders filled. Why was the server assigned so many tables? The hostess was under pressure to reduce the wait time for hungry guests. Why was she so uncomfortable with wait times? Perhaps she had not been trained or coached in how to engage guests in the lobby, making them feel at home and entertaining them during the wait. The restaurant manager can certainly be frustrated by the lack of ice; she must also concede that the incident has a deeper cause than the carelessness of a single server.
  2. Ask open-ended questions and be open to feedback. When events like the ice bin occur, it becomes imperative that the manager cope with the situation at hand in order to meet guests’ needs. At the same time, he or she must also explore the reasons behind the incident by asking questions to explore those causes in a way that employees feel comfortable telling the truth. The problem-solving process must exist in the spirit of improvement, without judgment. One cause might be that the manager has done a poor job of communicating to team members how to go about asking for help!

Root cause analysis is a technique for driving true process improvement. It is not exclusive of immediate action; there may very well be the need to provide a stop gap or band-aid to the problem. Using some simple tools, and asking the right questions, you can do both. Managing both short-term needs and long-term outcomes will keep your customers, clients and stakeholders engaged and coming back for more.

How have you balanced root cause analysis and short-term solutions in your workplace?


2 replies
  1. Kerry Quinn
    Kerry Quinn says:

    Great article. I learned from a great leader that “the issue is NEVER the issue.” It was a basic premise that the issue at hand, what seems to be apparently the issue, really is not and as a leader you have to dig deeper. Asking more questions, primarily why, then you can peel back the layers and eventually get to the root cause as you describe.
    Thanks for sharing. Great common sense of great management/leadership principles.

    • Rob Zell
      Rob Zell says:

      Thanks for sharing that quote. I love the simplicity. What are some ways you have balanced the “urgency of the now” with the need to dig deeper? -rz


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