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Problem-Solving Success Tip: Fix the Right Root Causes
by Jeanne Sawyer

Identify and fix the right root causes.

Complicated problems have multiple root causes, probably more than you can handle all at once. The trick is to address the important causes first. Don't waste time or money on causes that are either insignificant in impact or only peripheral causes of the problem you're trying to fix.

Root cause identification. Use an appropriate root cause analysis tool to identify the possible causes of your problem. Which tool is best depends on the problem, but Ishikawa analysis (also called cause-and-effect or fishbone analysis) is a good general-purpose tool. Keep checking that the causes you identify are possible causes of the problem you are analyzing, and not some other problem. It's really easy for the problem definition to expand at this point.

Root cause verification. The result of the identification step is a list of possible causes. Check again that they are all possible causes of the problem you're working on, and that nothing extraneous has crept in. Then verify that the causes are real by answering:

Did the suspected cause really occur? E.g., if the possible cause is that a procedure wasn't followed, verify that the procedure really wasn't followed. No assumptions allowed.

Could the suspected cause actually cause your problem? E.g., if a procedure wasn't followed, but the symptoms you see would occur whether or not you followed the procedure, following the procedure won't solve this problem. Seems obvious, but you won't know if you don't answer this question.

Set priorities. Establish priorities to help you fix the right root causes, i.e., those that are the biggest culprits in causing your problem. There two factors two consider:

Will eliminating the cause have a big impact on your ability to achieve your success criteria (your measurable definition of how you'll know the problem is solved)? If yes, make it a high priority.

Will it be easy to eliminate the cause? If yes, make it a high priority even if the impact is only moderate. It it's hard to eliminate and won't have much impact, don't waste your time.

It's not necessary to fix every cause, even if it's real. Invest your effort where it will make a difference.

Copyright 2006. Jeanne Sawyer. All Rights Reserved.

Jeanne Sawyer is an author, consultant, trainer and coach who helps her clients solve expensive, chronic problems, such as those that cause operational disruptions and cause customers to take their business elsewhere. These tips are excerpted from her book, When Stuff Happens: A Practical Guide to Solving Problems Permanently. Find out about it, and get more free information on problem solving at her web site:


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