Solve the Cause Not the Symptom

Find the real cause when something goes wrong. It costs a lot less in money, stress, injury, death and liability than simply ameliorating the symptoms.

Things go wrong for every organization. When it does, you have a problem; a difference between what should be and what is. The consequences are usually quite modest; but, every organization must face the possibility that traumatic events could happen with devastating consequences.

Organizations need to make problem-solving a regular activity. Every time something goes wrong, it is worth unearthing and eliminating the actual causes. Most organizations only delve deeply into the most dramatic difficulties. They are less likely to address the causes of relatively minor trouble, even though these are most apt to happen again, creating recurring costs, and they can escalate into major problems.

Interim Containment

The most traumatic problems require immediate steps to minimize consequences. Take these steps to achieve interim containment when things go wrong in a big way:

  1. Prepare. Anticipate possible worst events. Form a team from across the organization, and brainstorm answers to “What could go dramatically wrong in our organization?” Expect responses like fire, earthquake, product harm, and floods.
  2. Plan your actions. Consider those events with the greatest negative consequences and ask, “What is the first thing we do?”  For each possible disaster develop and document every step that will be taken to get the situation under control.
  3. Train everyone. Assign leadership roles. Ensure everyone learns what to do and practices their responses to every event. How long has it been since you have had a fire drill?
  4. If the general public will be affected, identify the company`s spokesperson. Plan how they will receive information, as well as how they will interact with the media. Consider hiring a media communications consultant to develop the plan.

Problem Solving Process

Fortunately not every problem requires an emergency preparedness plan, but all problems benefit from developing a problem-solving process.

  1. Gather information. Although a major event might involve many people including specialists, like fire inspectors, to gather evidence, for day-to-day problems, ask people to keep a diary describing the problems they encounter and their responses. Identify what was wrong, when and where it happened, and the actions taken.
  2. Define the problem by detailing the difference between what was and what should have been.
  3. Describe the differences in circumstances between when, where, what and who was involved when the problem existed and when it did not. Don’t ask “why” at this stage. It can be a mistake to ask why too soon.
  4. Examine all the differences in the circumstances. Ask with regard to this problem, “Which are significant and which are insignificant?”
  5. Dig down for root causes. Look for the problem in a process, not a person. This avoids blaming, which causes people to be reticent about sharing their observations. To trace the chain of causality ask “why” five times. Start with, “Why did this happen?” Examine the answers to see if they fit the precise circumstances of the problem. Then ask, “Why did this process fail?” If people were involved, look at how the organization failed in providing training, information, resources or tools. When you find an answer to the second ‘why’ probe deeper by asking this question at least three more times. There is no magic in asking exactly five times. You quit when you can’t find an answer to the last ‘why.’
  6. Brainstorm possible solutions to the root cause. Select the best.
  7. Develop and implement a success plan. Outline the measurable goal, anticipated benefits, milestones on the path, and how success will be tracked. Then, implement the plan and evaluate progress regularly, making adjustments as necessary.

This problem-solving process works for individuals on the frontline, managers, and teams. It pays greatest dividends when executed by those closest to the problem. Every problem-solving process is an investment in preventing things from going wrong in the future.

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June 1, 2011

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