Getting to the Root Cause

Root cause is a term that was drilled into my brain over 20 years ago and the effects of this period of my life have altered everything I have done since.  My career started in the manufacturing world and many of those years were spent in the quality area.  The early part of this period focused on product quality and dimensional integrity, but this all took a quantum leap starting in 1989 when I went to work for a Japanese-American joint venture in the automotive industry.  That company was named CEI and it was a joint venture between Delco Electronics (now Delphi) and Calsonic (now Calsonic Kansei).  We were a greenfield enterprise and we grew quickly during the 6 years I was there.  I can honestly say that this 6 year period was one part work and two parts classroom because so much of what I learned there has influenced my personal and professional life ever since.

Many Americans have no clue what I talk about when I use the term root cause and that is a troubling issue with our country and our  culture.  Many of us are so accustomed to dealing with symptoms of issues and we rarely dig deep enough to get to the real causes, the root cause of the problem.  I’ll spend some time talking about how to do this and then try to help you grasp why this is so important in almost everything you and I deal with on a daily basis.

There are many ways, many methods, to get to the root cause, the true cause of any issue or problem.  This statement bears a little clarification because so many of us are conditioned to come up with solutions before we ever get to the real problem.  Let’s consider how one might approach the problem of a bad cup of coffee.

All of us have had bad coffee at one time or another.  When most of us have bad coffee we quickly come up with some alibi or solution to keep this from happening again, but rarely will we drill down to the real issues at hand in an orderly, systematic method.  During my formative years with CEI I learned many methods to get to the root cause.  Here are just a few:

  • Ishikawa diagram (fishbone chart)
  • force field analysis
  • brainstorming (a basic method)
  • data gathering

The most valuable tool in the list above would be either data gathering or the fishbone chart.  An example of a fishbone chart is shown below for a car that will not start:


The items listed on each of the “bones” of the chart would come from a facilitated group discussion and they are assembled in an orderly fashion based on which of the areas they best fit into.  Just getting people to think in terms of stating problems instead of solutions is a tough step at first.

I commonly tell people that we live in a world that is full of solutions to problems that have not been identified.  I see this every day when I look at some of the products and services that are offered by vendors of all types.  If more of us would use tools like the fishbone chart and other problem solving methods we would get to the real problem, the root cause, much more often.

Some of you will not like the direction I will head now, but here goes.  A number of governmental solutions that are proposed are solutions that are not well thought out when you get to the real root cause of the problem.  While there is no doubt that providing unemployment benefits for those out of work is essential for some, too many people see this as an incentive to not work and they never consider that the unemployment benefit is a short term stipend to help them buy time to find their next job.

Many of the issues we deal with in the workplace could be more completely identified and then remedied if we used tools like the ones shown above more often.  If you really want to solve a problem in a manner that will prevent it from recurring, then take the time to find out the true cause, the root cause, and the probability of it coming back will be greatly diminished.

Have you taken the time lately to find the root cause of nagging issues in your life?  What are you doing to better identify these issues and how do you seek the input of others in this?

Try this and I guarantee you will see a difference.  Don’t just assume you know the right answer.  Do a little digging and find the real problem.