Small Business Problem Solving

Why is it so difficult to get to the real reason a problem exists? What is necessary to identify the root cause of a problem?

The difficulty in getting to the key elements of a problem is that you are dealing with multiple, diverse drivers, each one having the potential to steer you in the wrong direction or camouflage the real culprits. Another reason is that we have been programmed to think and act quickly and hence do not believe we have the luxury of taking the appropriate time to analyze and investigate. We focus on short-term results. And quite frankly, many people do not know how to get to the real source or have the appropriate skill set.

Although each of us may not naturally possess the optimum skill set for problem solving, obtaining the appropriate skills can be attained. So what attributes are necessary?

The ability to dissect an issue and identify the cause and effect of multiple, related branches. This includes being able to decipher relevant information from irrelevant and reliable data from unreliable data. It takes practice to hone these skills.

Welcoming new ideas from yourself and others is very important. You will be hindered if you “think you already know” the answer. Explore and let the process evolve. You will be surprised by what you learn. Most people think they are open-minded but their thinking and actions indicate otherwise. Make sure you are not one of them.

Asking questions is the one essential element to getting to the bottom of an issue. Once a question is answered, ask why until you arrive at a reasonable conclusion. Here is an example of how this might be played out.

Q: Why was order 67543 delivered late?
A: Because we were missing a part needed to complete the assembly.

If you stop here you may miss the opportunity to reduce a repeat performance. You may be tempted to just think that it was a purchasing or inventory error and be satisfied, but go deeper.

Q: Why was the part missing?
A: We did not know we needed it.

Q: Why did we not know it was needed?
A: It was not listed in the bill of materials.

Q: Why was it not listed on the bill of materials?
A: Engineering said they had a new part to replace it.

Q: Why wasn’t the new part used, etc.

You get the idea. Keep asking questions until you discover the true reason order 67543 did not ship on time. It is only at this point that you can resolve the issue and increase performance. Do not be shortsighted here. In most cases, when you get to the root of one problem and take steps to make the appropriate corrections, you will be stopping the occurrence of multiple new problems.

As you can see from the example above, it can take some time to unravel the mystery. It may require talking to a variety of people, inside and outside of the company, sifting through a lot of data, waiting for responses, etc. You will be rewarded if you stay focused and wait until you have all of the information needed to uncover the root cause and implement the appropriate corrections.

How many of these attributes do you possess? If you possess most, great. Do you use them to uncover the root cause? If not, begin to practice these skills. Of the four attributes above, analytical may be the most difficult to master. The other three are easy to understand and in most cases just require a change of focus. Exercising your analytical skills may require some training. Having the skills just provides the ability to get to the sources of issues. Putting the skills into action is what will produce results.

Once you are able to unlock the real reason certain events take place, you can start the process of making corrections — the right corrections.

Copyright 2005, Kay Graham-Gilbert

Gain knowledge, not just information. Kay Graham-Gilbert, author, advisor and executive of Interactive Consulting has an extensive background in creating effective operations. 

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