Find the Root Cause

Root Cause is popular talk, Yer many overreact to the alarm, leading to a poorly defined problem and foil good solutions. Problem Solving begins with accurate problem definition. What are the most common failures in finding root cause? How can we be more effective problem solvers?

The Problem: 

felt my heart pound to the percussion of the main rotor as the helicopter settled onto the landing pad. It was 6:30 a.m. at a private hangar, awaiting my flight to a morning meeting. As the chopper blades slowed to a halt, the pilot hopped out and told me we would depart as soon as he refueled the aircraft.

The refueling process consisted of pumping the aviation fuel from an underground tank via a small external pump powered by a common, four-cycle gasoline engine. Like a lawn mower, a pull rope started the pump engine. This morning, the little gas engine refused to start. We had a problem. 

The pilot repeatedly pulled the starter rope. With each pull, he became more animated, emotional and determined to start that little engine. Finally, frustrated and exhausted, the pilot concluded that we were grounded.

At that point, I intervened. “How far is the closest airfield?” I asked. “About twenty miles,” came the terse reply. “Do they have aviation fuel?” “Yeah.” “Do you have enough fuel on board the helicopter to fly there?” “Yes.” “Could we fly there to refuel and then continue on to the destination?” “ Well, yeah.” Minutes later, we lifted off toward the airport to refuel and continued on in time for the meeting.

Poorly Defined Problems Lead to Poor Solutions

Correctly identifying the problem made the solution obvious. Incorrectly defining the problem (the gasoline engine on the fuel storage tank pump would not start) resulted in the pilot directing all his energy to starting the engine. However, correctly defining the problem (not having enough fuel for a fifty-minute flight) resulted in focusing on options to obtain fuel.

Similarly, problem solving is foiled by two common errors: 

  1. Incorrect Problem Identification. Eighty percent of all problem-solving efforts are hampered by poor problem definition. Often, the first indicator of a problem is not the actual problem. Therefore, focusing on the initial problem indicator detracts from the real problem and foils any solution. The first step in effective problem solving is to learn and follow the discipline of accurate problem identification.
  2. Reacting to the Alarm. Reacting to a problem with frustration, anxiety or anger reduces your problem-solving potential. Emotional reaction narrows one’s perspective, which limits options; the fewer the options, the less likely a viable solution will be forthcoming.

Problem Defining Problem

Do not…be alarmed by the potential problem. Do not overreact or fixate on the immediate indicator, which leads to premature solutions.

But rather,

Do…view the alarm as information that enables one to evaluate the relative urgency of the issue. Keep an open mind to identify the best solution.

Accurately Define Problems

Effective problem solving depends on accurate problem identification. Then, and only then, can a viable root cause analysis be conducted. Once the root cause is accurately identified, viable solutions can be created. Effective problem solving is a skill that is learned, taught, and deployed best when a consistent and thorough process is followed.

 Read more : Problem Terminators  (See Creative Root Cause Analysis Master Facilitator’s Guide, Vol II, available in pdf download.)