I have always been fascinated with Sherlock Holmes. When presented with a mystery, he seems to extract so much information with his strong sense of curiosity and observation. Then he pieces together the details into a convincing explanation – just in time to solve the case! One such mystery occurred in my own life. Not only did I solve the “case”, I learned a principle that can help you build quality into your organization!
For some time, I struggled to understand the difference between a symptom and a root cause. It turns out that identifying whether something is a symptom, or a root cause is a basic skill for problem solving – and quality improvements!
The Case of the Recurring Illness
Shortly after the first of a new year, I trudged into my doctor’s office for the 7th straight year in a row, sick with the flu.
I asked him what he could do to get me over the flu quickly. He said that all he could do was to help me “feel” better, but he could not solve my problem.
That is when I realized that helping me “feel” better was only dealing with my symptoms, and NOT solving my problem, my root cause.
Shortly after that, I started asking myself the why questions. I started to ask, Why do I have the flu? Why have I gotten the flu for seven years straight? Why has it occurred at about the same time each year?
And this is when I discovered…
By asking myself the why questions enough times, I realized each year, around Christmas and New Year, my wife and I attend several parties where there were a lot of people coughing and sneezing and using their hands to cover their month.
I also considered how I love chips, any chips, and especially since the food companies have come out with all of those flavored chips!
Then I concluded that the same people coughing and sneezing were grabbing chips from the same common serving bowls that I was reaching into. It turns out they were spreading more than Christmas cheer as we munched on our chips!
Now that was my root cause.
So now when my wife and I attend a party, you’ll find me using my elbows and knocking people down to be first in line to get to the chips. (Hopefully, you know I’m saying this in fun.)
More strategic/hygienic snacking addressed the root cause, and solved my problem because I have never had the flu again. Case solved!
After my company held our first Operation QIC® (pronounced “quick” for Quality Is Contagious) workshop, our people learned that the shortest route to higher quality in business was to identify and eliminate the root cause barriers to quality..
Every organization can understand the root cause of a problem by simply performing a root cause analysis.
Symptom vs. Root Cause
When an issue arises, it should be resolved as quickly as possible.
And when you’re resolving a problem, it’s important to understand the difference between a symptom and a root cause.
A symptom is an indicator or sign that a problem exists.
A root cause is the fundamental reason for, or source of the problem.
Root Cause Analysis
One way to understand the root cause of a problem is to perform a simple root cause analysis. A root cause analysis just requires you to ask a series of why questions
If your employees have a low morale, it is a sign of a problem. Low morale doesn’t happen by itself, and it can’t be resolved by itself.
The underlying problem may be heavy overtime, boredom, poor leadership, pending layoffs, etc.
Each time that you can answer the why question, you have probably identified a symptom that is actually caused by something else.
So continue to ask why for each answer until you can no longer generate a logical response.
You now have likely reached the root cause that has generated the observed symptoms.
Tip: Once you think you’ve asked your last “why” question, try to ask “why” one more time. Often, we need to really push through to the end of this process to arrive at the genuine, root cause of our problem!
When you have identified the root cause, put an action plan in place to solve the problem. And amazingly, many of the symptoms will go away as well.
In business, you will find the root cause barriers to higher quality are within certain processes. Namely, you’ll need to focus on eliminating processes that are the non-value-added steps and procedures that unnecessarily lengthen the time (cycle time) to process business tasks and transactions.
Speed Drives Profits
Remember, time (cycle time), NOT quality, drives the business. And speed drives profits.
When people can analyze their business processes, learn quickly from their experiences, and use those lessons to further simplify their work cycles, good quality occurs naturally.
Just like Sherlock, we need to tap the power of curiosity and observation when it comes to improving our organizations. When we do, we’ll ask “why” questions to identify and solve our quality problems!
Have you discovered the secret to quality in your organization? Do you know the difference between a symptom and a root cause? Have you used the “why” questions to uncover the root cause to a problem? Please send me your comments <here> and share this blog post with a friend and co-worker.