Friday, October 24, 2014

How to Dig Through the Root Causes of Complex Problems

 A drop of oil on a sprocket will eventually lubricate the whole chain.

The digital business world becomes hyper-connected and interdependent, the problems facing business also turn to be over-complex and difficult to solve, how do you identify the root cause of a problem at work and effectively address it?

Asking WHY is the foundation for any type of causal analysis: Root causes can be identified by using the 5 WHY's technique to develop a suitable action. it defines the CAUSE and EFFECT relationships that allow you to uncover the deeper causes. A single thread of WHY questions are sometimes called a WHY STAIRCASE or 5WHYs. But to have confidence that you have applied sufficient rigor in your analysis, you apply the WHY staircase technique many times over, using a structured methodology that allows you to capture and analyze the results. However, this is not just a solo exercise, as these actions should be proposed and discussed with your team. Is this the best action? Will the same cause likely happen again? Are there better solutions available? This is all part of a high performing culture. The assumption that there is a single cause to a "problem" in a complex adaptive system is unhelpful. There are multiple, inter-related dynamics and you need to be looking for patterns rather than isolating causes. 

Correcting a failed culture will not happen unless the top creates a path to be followed. Data does not give you the full insight and understanding to the true nature of a problem; understanding human dynamics, systems and relationships does. Behind every problem is a relationship dynamic out of alignment. In relation to fixing root causes of problems, a high performing culture will invariably have a management process to address this. In majority cases, the problem is perceived either by the people who are far remote from the problem (sitting in corporate/ managerial offices or in never-ending meetings) or a panic reaction from failure or a calamity. The people who are in the near proximity and have in-depth knowledge about the factual nature of the problem are the people who are hardly involved in the problem identification. It is imperative that the people "responsible" for the organizational culture be vested and committed to changing it. Therefore, the top needs to have their finger on the pulse in order to steer the organization in the direction that it must go. And to be the leader who is able to expeditiously defuse, minimize or eliminate some workplace problems, he/ she must create a workplace culture and climate that is conducive to that.

The high-mature leader encompasses the ability to address the systems, processes and the human element (horizontal leadership and vertical leadership). Most importantly, he/she recognizes the importance of the human element/capital, and they are their most valuable asset. Therefore, he/she engages the masses for overall organizational effectiveness, thereby creating a workplace culture and climate that is conducive to shared decision-making, collaboration, innovation, employee buy-in, organizational change, etc., which in essence empowers, impacts and improves the organization's bottom line. Such leadership strategies have been found beneficial in minimizing workplace conflict, decreasing turnover rates, decreasing absenteeism and increasing employee morale and engagement. The well-developed leader recognizes that and takes advantage of the opportunities by bringing his or her people to the table and investing in them first. Before team spirit, trust, confidence, we all need to be sure that we work to achieve tasks and solve the problems that we understand and that are aligned with the strategy.

A drop of oil on a sprocket will eventually lubricate the whole chain. The best way is to go inwards to see how your own actions might be contributing to the overall problem as they are the easiest to change. Take a step back and hold yourself accountable as the cause of the problem even when you don't see clearly how exactly you caused the problem. There is always something that you may be able to point to or do differently yourself that ultimately will change the outcome. The butterfly effect is another example of how a sneeze can infect a whole office. It may have been a colleague is not holding up their end of the project or co-workers are resistant to change, or an angry customer; rather than perpetuating the problem and playing the blame-game, it takes the initiative to build a trusting bridge/working relationship in order to strengthen communication and move the process/project forward.

Take systematic approaches and well-tested methodologies. It might be a good idea to first split problems into different categories and to assess the relative importance of the different categories for them and what could be done about it.  Fault Tree Analysis (FTA) is an elegant and simple to use tool for asking the WHY questions and maintain the proper CAUSE and EFFECT relationship to build the Fault Tree. Barrier Analysis - Perform a barrier analysis in addition to the use of any other causal analysis methodology, as it not only identifies all the barriers that had to have failed in order for the event to take place, it also helps uncover programmatic areas to be probed further.

Problems solving is both art and science, data analytics provides partial fact, but even critically, follow a more humanistic approach and accepts this unpredictable, irrational human factor as the key element for addressing challenges. And business leaders should focus on creating the culture and climate that enables those closest to the problems to see and connect what needs connecting to unblock issues and move things forward. They need to be asking the questions and facilitating the dialogue and build the culture of collaboration and innovation.


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