Root Cause Analysis

Root Cause Analysis is Defining the Problem Accurately

by Mark Galley

Defining a Problem

In order to solve a problem, there must be clear understanding (explanation) of what the problem is. Within an organization it’s common for people to disagree about what the problem is. With different backgrounds, experience and areas of expertise, it’s normal for people to see problems differently. The facilitator of the root cause analysis should plan on some disagreement. Instead of a subjective, opinionated debate, defining a problem can be an objective discussion. While this may seem unrealistic to anyone who’s witnessed a group of people arguing about the problem, it’s surprisingly straightforward to accomplish. Simply define the problem, not from any individual’s point of view, but from the organization’s perspective – the impact to the organization’s goals.

That’s not the problem

A problem is generally defined as a state of difficulty. People use the word problem for anything they view as “not good” – big or small. Think of the term problem as a useful label that provides insight into someone’s point of view. Within an organization, a problem can be a small day-to-day issue that individuals tackle on their own and it can be a major incident requiring input from many different people. A problem can also be a negative situation that develops slowly over time involving several groups.

There are many different approaches for defining a problem. Some companies write a problem statement to incorporate everyone’s input. Other approaches pick the problem as one thing – like the fishbone diagram. Some organizations identify several different problems within one larger incident. While approaches for defining a problem may vary, one commonality is the unnecessary amount of time wasted arguing and debating the problem.

The overall goals of an organization ultimately define the ideal state of an organization. Any deviation from ideal is a problem. Defining a problem as any deviation from the goals is fundamental to Cause Mapping root cause analysis. Defining a problem is not about picking one thing. A complete problem definition determines the impact to each of the organization’s overall goals.

People will continue to use the word problem for anything they see as wrong, but the facilitator connects the different views of the problem to the goals. This is the simplicity of getting everyone to agree. People will disagree about the problem, but they won’t disagree on the impact to the organization’s goals - the organization goals (already exist) are defined by its mission.

An organization doesn’t have just one goal. It has goals. The ideal state for most organizations can typically be captured with four or five goals. The impact to each one of these goals is captured for every issue. Most incidents impact more than one goal which reflects the real-world nature of problems within an organization. The goals that are impacted capture the magnitude of the issue and provide the starting point for the cause-and-effect analysis (Cause Mapping root cause analysis – Part 2).

Root Cause Analysis
Root Cause Analysis