Ben Explains: Root Cause Analysis

All too often we get distracted dealing with the symptoms of our issues, rather than the root causes. Today we’ll discuss Root Cause Analysis and learn how to channel precious energy and time into making more progress. More progress equals more productivity.


Engineering can be defined as ‘The action of artfully bringing something about’. 

Maybe you’ve read a couple of posts, sat down at the table and thought, ‘right, time to get this **** sorted’. Then stalled, just as I did. Trying to solve the problem of ‘life’ is like trying to eat an adult elephant with a baby spoon, it’s hard! (Not that I would ever condone eating an elephant, but you get the visual: Big Thing, Tiny Tool).

Over the years, engineers have developed a number of  tips, tricks and techniques to ‘standardise’ the way we work to ensure we are the most efficient in our jobs. It’s ‘evolution over revolution’ because if someone has already done the hard work, then why reinvent the wheel?

As engineering covers such a wide range of topics, even our own personal, chaotic, lives can benefit from these  methods. Last week I discussed how engineering is about solving problems, so here is a tool to help you firstly define the problem, then for you to go about artfully solving it.


So what is the root cause of the problem? (This is a phrase I constantly come back to, as it’s vitally important in engineering.) 

We are all capable of solving problems. In fact, there is no better person to solve your problems but you. It is you who understands your life better than anyone else ever could. As intelligent beings, we have the power of the internet to ‘search and solve’ even the most problematic of everyday scenarios. Or at least find a crevice in some far-flung corner of the internet, where one or two others are experiencing the same problem as we are—solidarity is a great first step. A little self-belief doesn’t hurt either.

However, all too often, we recognise there’s a problem, then we panic. Distressed at the difficulty in which we find ourselves, we fog our brains, failing to clearly define what we need to focus upon, failing to convince ourselves we can handle it. 

We would never go to the mechanics workshop and say “it’s broken” without giving some hint as to where it was broken first. The bill for the mechanic to find the fault, in the myriad of components on an automobile, if not completely obvious, would be astronomical.  Sometimes then, we need to sit down, look at ourselves in the mirror and ask, what exactly has gone wrong?  

I’m struggling with my money. OK, but what exactly are you struggling with? Are you being paid too little, do you run out of money before the next pay cheque? Are your bills greater than your income? 

My side hustle is struggling. OK, but what exactly is the problem? Are your products selling? Is your advertising working? What feedback are you getting from the customers?

My relationship is on the rocks. OK, have you sat down and talked about it? Have you been to see an expert? Do you need to get away, together, for a weekend?

We need to first find the ‘Root Cause’ of the problem, or the fundamental underlying issue, that sprouts all the chaos above ground before we can try and solve it. This is known in the trade as ‘Root Cause Analysis’ (RCA).


When engineers come across a machine that is broken, or one that is just not running quite right, they might ask ‘why’, and then ask ‘why’ four more times again. 

This is a technique in engineering, called the ‘5-Why’ method. Developed by Sakichi Toyoda with the Toyota Motor Corporation, it is a system that aids you to find that fundamental problem. 

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There is a dent in the wall – why?

Because the door has been hitting it – why?

Because the stopper has come loose – why?

Because the stopper only has one screw in it – why?

Because the other has broken – why?

Because it was the wrong size screw. ROOT CAUSE

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To fix the problem of the dent in the wall, we need to find the right size screw to fix the stopper in the floor.

As you expand into environments with thousands of components, machines and processes, accurately finding and defining the ‘Root Cause’ of the problem is the key to success.

The better you can make your ‘problem definition’ the more clarity and focus you have to fix it.  

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I’m struggling with money – why?

Because the money runs out before the end of the month – why?

Because I’m spending more than I’m earning – why?

Because I don’t know how much I spend each month – why?

Because I don’t have a budget – why?

Because I never thought it was needed. ROOT CAUSE.

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When completing this exercise its vitally important to stay focussed on the problem at hand and not to deviate off onto problems in other areas. Take these two examples for instance.

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I’m always late for work – why?

I always hit rush hour traffic – why?

There is a junction where all the workers in the neighbourhood must pass and the queues are a nightmare! – why?

Because the road system is not good enough to cope with the traffic levels – why?

The designers of the roads didn’t know what they were doing?? 

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This is not finding the root cause of the problem. The process is an iterative cycle and as we know, anything that rotates tends to move things outwards, due to the centrifugal force. Therefore it is vitally important to keep the focus inwards, on factors you yourself can control. 

—————————————————————

I’m always late for work – why?

I always hit rush hour traffic – why?

Because I start work at 8 and therefore I leave at 7:30, just like everyone else – why?

Because that’s the routine I have had for many years – why?

Because in the past, setting off at 7:30 was fine, until they built that new factory last year, now the traffic has increased – why? (stay inward focussed here!)

Because when the situation changed, I didn’t continually analyse my day, and figure out a new, more efficient process. ROOT CAUSE.

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A word of caution though. If you complete the ‘5 whys’ correctly, it’s going to take you to some places that may really challenge you emotionally. This can be disruptive, but the reward is worth the work. Below are examples I recently completed for my normal day-to-day job situation. I could sit down and blame the company but the root cause of my problem lay directly at my feet. 

————————————————————

I’m unhappy at work – why?

Because I don’t feel motivated to do it anymore- why?

Because I expect more from the company with regards to the effort I’m putting in – why?

Because they don’t pay the employees any bonuses for the additional hard work we complete, leaving us feeling like ‘why should we bother?’  – why?

Because they don’t see the value in treating employees fairly and we are the ones they should be encouraging to be more of a successful company – why?

Because they haven’t been trained on how to run a successful company? NOT A ROOT CAUSE for my problem. 

————————————————————-

As you can see this is not solving the problem of why I am unhappy at work. It’s just moaning about the situation and my focus has been cast external, not internal. The inward ‘5-why’ method for my job situation actually looks like this.

————————————————————–

I’m unhappy at work – why?

Because I don’t feel motivated to do it anymore- why?

Because I expect more from the company with regards to the effort I’m putting in – why?

Because my research on how the company runs, before I took the job wasn’t good enough – why?

Because I never thought I needed to check on a company, the vision and strategy, reward systems and ask current employees what they think – why?

Because I assumed it would all be OK as it has in the past. But my assumption led me to not checking all the relevant facts and information that was important to me first; and I only found out it was like this after I accepted the job.  ROOT CAUSE

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So now I have two options. I stick it out in the company and accept it for what it is. Or I search for a new job and in that process, I complete the proper research before accepting it. It was a tough lesson for me to learn, not least because it brought me face-to-face with my ego. Such reckoning can be really uncomfortable, and that’s ok. If you’re really struggling with a decision though, I want to encourage you to seek professional support. I assure you, there’s no shame in it. 

But what about the company, some might say? Well imagine in an ideal world, everyone completed really deep research on a company before they took the job. Soon, companies that treated employees poorly would be forced to change their ways as no one would work for them…..food for thought, no?!


Using the ‘5-why’ method is a powerful technique  in directing your vision towards the one thing that needs to be fixed, solved or improved.

It can be used for simple obstacles around the house, or for large challenges like your work, home life or financial situation. 

Sometimes they are quick to complete, sometimes they take days. But when you master the 5-Why method, the results can be extremely rewarding.

And don’t worry, I’ll give you tips on how to solve problems as you find them.  So enjoy! 

Ben Stalsberg

New posts out fortnightly on Fridays!


What would you define your major problems are and what do you think the root cause of them is? Why don’t you take some time out this weekend and try a couple of examples?


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_whys

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Root_cause_analysis

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centrifugal_force


Copyright © 2020 – Ben Stalsberg – All Rights Reserved


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